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‘Future’ and ‘possible’ don’t help the houseless now (opinion)


Submitted by Ilya Arbatman

“They’re not in your way, you’re in their way,” Officer Utter snaps, referring to the enormous dump trucks and bulldozers demolishing people’s homes at the end of Commercial Row. He is standing on a raised concrete slab, milling around with some other police officers, and rudely barking down to a housing activist who is frantically trying to help Mary get her belongings out of the bulldozers’ way.

Milk crates of stuff, a few bags, coolers, a couple of small carts—Mary has arranged all of her possessions into a small pile in the dirt. She doesn’t know where she is going, exactly, but here’s the housing activists’ van pulling up, despite Officer Utter’s detached, heartless command to get out of the way. Mary, with a little help, manages to throw everything she owns inside the van and escape before the bulldozer turns the tiny little dirt patch she has been living on back to rubble, along with whatever she had not managed to save.

For months, this scene, whose cruelty was surely mitigated by witnesses and advocates, has been playing out over and over again all over Reno and Sparks, as encampments were brutally swept and houseless residents kettled below the Wells overpass.

A few blocks away is the supposed solution: the Nevada Cares Campus, a 45,000-square-foot tent that can hold up to 900 people. Destroy everyone’s individual tent, which at least provides some basic level of privacy and autonomy, and dump them all into one huge, FEMA-style structure.

The Nevada Cares Campus can accommodate up to 900 individuals in mostly bunk-style beds. Image: Jeri Chadwell / This Is Reno

The Governor’s Bowl, an abandoned baseball field next door to the tent, is supposedly being converted into a Safe Camp, a sanctioned encampment of about 50 tents. Insurance, staffing, drainage and a host of other issues have delayed the opening of the Safe Camp, which is now slated to start accepting residents by mid-June. We’ll see about that.

The tent is allegedly just phase one, and diagrams of the entire property are full of captions starting with words like “future” and “possible.” “Future Affordable Housing.” “Possible Future Rehabilitation.” But promises, diagrams, PowerPoint presentations, virtual city council meetings—all words, chatter, air. The Community Homelessness Advisory Board (CHAB) cancelled its May 1 meeting, which was to feature, after months of advocating, a lived experience presentation to offer feedback and guidance on this escalating disaster.

What’s really going on?

Rents and housing prices in Reno skyrocket as the city sees an unprecedented influx of new residents and developments. Downtown, empty lots multiply as residential motels and other low-income housing options are demolished en masse to provide prospective developers a neat and pretty blank canvas. Some of these lots have now sat empty for almost five years, with zero repercussions for those who leveled them.

The Fourth Street corridor, for years the site of the existing shelter as well as many of the services that unhoused residents depend on, from food to resource centers, is rapidly transforming into a “Brewery District” covered in new paint, gaudy logos and all the other things that say, “Get these dirty people out of here. They did their job and made this property nice and cheap. Now get them into the tent so they don’t scare off the hip, clean clientele.”

The women’s and family shelter, OUR Place, is full. The Cares Campus tent for women last week was full. The numbers sheltered there fluctuate daily, but as of last count there was no room left for couples and only about 30 top bunks left for men. (Yes, much of the capacity is bunk beds, prison-style.) Local providers have been turned away and even banned for bringing in prospective residents when they have been told there is no room for them.

(Editor’s note: While the space for women was full last week, as of today, the Nevada Cares Campus has some beds available and Pat Cashell from Volunteers of America said nobody will be turned away.)

Meanwhile, the sweeps continue at a brutal pace.

Some who fled the bulldozers downtown and who have been planning on moving to the Safe Camp were told to relocate to an empty lot a few miles east that would not be swept until the end of the summer. The lot belongs to the Truckee River Flood Management Authority, whose six-member board features two mayors (Reno and Sparks), two county commissioners, and two city council members. In other words, a group of people who certainly have a stake in the success of the Cares Campus and who have professed, time and again in countless meetings, their commitment to treating the unhoused population with dignity and compassion.

City of Reno had dump trucks ready to help demolish and clean up a homeless encampment near the Wells Avenue overpass on May 20, 2021 in Reno, Nev. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Three days after setting up camp at the new location, everyone was given notice to be out in four days; the property will be undergoing cleaning/maintenance.

Where are people supposed to go? The shelters are full. The Safe Camp is not open. Everywhere they go, even when they have been told they will be safe there for a little while, harassment and inhumane displacement continues every single day. Trauma piles on top of trauma, trust in agencies and ‘outreach’ breaks down, people scatter farther and farther out, and the risk of overdoses and other tragic but avoidable outcomes increases as people trade community and any sense of stability for despair and isolation.

Yes, it’s a complex issue and there are many factors at play, but as for the deplorable situation on the ground, only local government’s negligence is to blame. If the Cares Campus is actually meant to succeed beyond being a warehouse to coercively store poor people out of sight and out of mind, the time to change course is now, and local officials are fully empowered to take the action necessary. Local activists have started a petition with the following clear, reasonable demands:

  • A complete stop to the sweeps until the Nevada Cares Campus Safe Camp is fully open (with promised mental health care, addiction counseling, transportation, and workforce development), and a stop to sweeps again, if the Safe Camp becomes full.
  • Funded transportation for unsheltered individuals and their belongings to the Nevada Cares Campus for those interested in using both the shelter and the Safe Camp.
  • A temporary camping location for unsheltered individuals (e.g. North Edison encampment) until the Nevada Cares Campus Safe Camp is fully open, with facilities for hygiene and medical use, including toilets, sinks, showers and clinics.
  • A county-wide prioritization of sustaining and building transitional, affordable and low-income housing.
  • The recognition of the Reno Houseless Union as a representative entity with a seat at the table in city and county planning decisions.
  • An end to the police harassment, and the reallocation of Reno Police Department and Sparks Police Department cleanup funds to support social service, health, outreach and housing initiatives existing and created for the unsheltered community. And additionally, to pay shelter staff a livable wage and provide employees with necessary training and support.

Ilya Arbatman does community-minded work in Reno, NV with The Holland Project, KWNK, and other grassroots organizations. 

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