By Isaac Hoops, Kristen Hackbarth and Bob Conrad
Nearly three dozen people camping at Sparks’ Gateway Park were forced to leave the area Wednesday as Sparks Police conducted a sweep to clean the park of debris and belongings.
Almost as many community volunteers were also on hand to help those individuals move their belongings and vacate the park after word of the cleanup spread on social media early this week.
Michael Carson was one of those people who came to assist and said there would likely have been 100 volunteers had more notice been given.
“It was a surprise. I came out here last night to see what was going on and to talk to people to see how much notice they had, where they were going and what solutions were in place,” he said, adding that one solution provided to campers was to go to one of the area’s homeless shelters, which he said are full.
After Carson’s visit Tuesday, he shared a video on Facebook to gather help. Word quickly spread on Reno/Sparks Mutual Aid, a Facebook-based community support group that launched at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It resulted in not only assistance from individuals, but the use of a box truck to move the belongings of people who’d been living in the park.
Larry Davis said he’d been camping at Gateway Park for more than two months and described it as calm and relaxing. He said he was the first to set up camp at the site after walking up and down the river pathway and choosing the spot because, he said, he doesn’t get along well in the camps in downtown Reno.
“This community is awesome,” Davis said of the group that had been camping in the park, adding that he wished he could help others. He said he didn’t want to share where he’d be heading next because having more people follow would likely lead to yet another camp cleanup.
Outreach ends, enforcement begins
The increased number of people camping at the park was part of the reason Sparks Police said they had to shift from outreach to enforcement. Increased calls for the fire department and complaints from some residents at the nearby RV park factored into the decision as well.
“For the safety of campers and patrons of the river and park, we coordinated efforts with our regional partners to provide services to those illegally camping at Gateway Park and along the river,” said Sparks Police Chief Chris Crawforth. “We offered emergency shelter, transitional housing, food, medical care, behavioral health services, trash clean up assistance, relocation services, and other support to individuals at Gateway Park.”
Sparks Police say they provided notice to campers at the site three weeks ago, and again 48 hours prior to the cleanup. Crawforth said the cleanup was prompted after numerous crimes allegedly committed by those camping at the park. Those crimes ranged from theft and campfires to indecent exposure, threats and drug sales.
“As you can see, there’s a sign that says no camping,” said Patrick McNeely, a sergeant with the Sparks Police HOPE Team. “We allowed it for a time while we did our outreach efforts. But it came time that we had to do something to make the place safe for everybody, not just the people that are here, but the people that actually want to use the park for their dogs and stuff like that.”
McNeely said that outreach began Oct. 31, 2020 when his team advised people living at the park that it was illegal to camp there and the time would come when they’d be asked to leave, but that their efforts would focus first on helping people to get off the streets and connect with resources. He said his team has been to the park two to three days a week for the past three months conducting outreach, in addition to outreach provided by local homeless advocates.
“We’ve probably signed up over 20 people with Medicaid,” McNeely said. “Got them services that they offer…but they also offer programs for housing, and treatment for drug problems and alcoholism. …We had mental health counselors come out and talk to people and make appointments when people can’t make it to an office.”
Ultimately, the goal was not to have to arrest anyone during the cleanup, McNeely said. “We haven’t had to fight with anybody or arrest anybody or do anything like that. It’s been a fairly, I wouldn’t say pleasant at all, but at least it hasn’t been traumatic for most of these people.”
UPDATE: After initial publication, Sparks Police Public Information Officer Damon O’Connell confirmed one arrest was made for obstruction.
Sparks Police, which has been praised for having a more proactive and less punitive approach toward the unsheltered, told This Is Reno today that their efforts to provide homeless outreach, rather than enforcing no-camping laws, were misinterpreted last week by a local TV news station.
“That wasn’t entirely true,” said McNeely. “That was essentially the reporter’s interpretation. I did a 15-minute interview. I’m not sure if they want to make that entire interview available for the public to see, but obviously on the news, they only showed about 30 seconds of what I actually said, which was sometimes there comes a time that we have to do enforcement, right?”
Advocates, however, said the mixed messages created an increased burden on the homeless people living at the park, who had believed, before recent announcements about the cleanup, that they would be able to continue living there.