The Washoe County Commission on Tuesday will consider approving grant money to continue funding the now one-year-old River Stewards Project, led by the local non-profit Karma Box Project.
According to a staff report from Dana Searcy, housing and homeless services manager for the county, “Controlling the flow of human created trash/waste is critical to protect the health of the Truckee River, especially in the urban Truckee River corridor.”
The report cites trash “generated by unsheltered individuals living along the Truckee River” as having a “large impact on the health of the region’s water source.”
A Truckee River Fund grant in the amount of $219,164 has been awarded to Washoe County to help address the issue, according to the report. The county would provide an in-kind match of $77,874.26.
The Truckee River Fund was established in 2004 by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority and is managed by the Community Foundation of Western Nevada (CFWN). Its purpose is “exclusively for projects that protect and enhance water quality or water resources of the Truckee River, or its watershed.”
The River Stewards Project was launched in October 2020 with an initial CFWN grant, supporting government funds and the partnership the Karma Box Project.
According to Searcy’s report, if the proposed grant funding is approved, Karma Box Project will continue to head up the project with up to $189,134 in funds over the course of the next year.
The remaining $30,030 will be used to pay for weekly pickup of sharps by local medical waste disposal contractor Rynocare. (Sharps, according to the Federal Drug Administration, include needles and syringes, lancets and “fingerstick” devices used for blood testing by those with diseases like diabetes, and auto injectors like epinephrine and insulin pens.)
River cleanups will take place five days a week, and sharps will be collected from disposal units once per week. Karma Box Project will retain the responsibility for the cleaning, locking and unlocking of Portland Loo bathroom facilities daily.
In January, Karma Box Project Executive Director Grant Denton, who started the organization in 2018, told This Is Reno that as much as 20 yards of waste was being removed from the Wells Avenue area along the river each week.
“When you prove they’re the ones out there cleaning up our river, it changes perceptions.”
According to the county report, between October 2020 and June 2021, nearly 8,000 bags of trash and 250 pounds of waste from sharps disposal units were collected from the river during 628 volunteer shifts.
The project also includes the building of a database of unsheltered individuals meant to help connect them to housing resources and, ultimately, reduce the number of people camping along the river.
According to the staff report, as of June 30, 2021, the River Stewards Project had added 247 individuals into the database and helped 28 individuals leave camps on the river and enter into transitional housing.
Unsheltered individuals are incentivized to participate in the River Steward Project’s efforts through gift card giveaways, but they can also become a part of the project themselves.
Denton said he is excited to continue with the project for that reason.
“A lot of the folks that I’ve met down there actually work for me now,” he said. “They started working for the gift cards and then ended up transitioning to actually being an employee of mine.”
Denton said transitioning from volunteering with the project to working for it often has its benefits too.
“You have to look at what work does for people—being able to do something, you know, being able to have a platform to earn your way,” he said. “You can also look at it as a stigma reduction program, too. A lot of people have ideas about how our unsheltered population is. Then, when you prove they’re the ones out there cleaning up our river, it changes perceptions.”
If the new grant funding is approved, the project will continue to receive oversight through the Washoe County Housing and Homeless Services Division, which will also provide administrative support and ensure grant compliance.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.