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Massive Cares Campus homeless shelter needs major changes

By Bob Conrad

The Nevada Cares Campus opened just over a year ago, and it is in disarray. Officials said the facility’s original intention when it opened slightly over a year ago is now not providing the needed services for those experiencing homelessness.

The facility lacks adequate Internet service, the initial capacity was reduced by about a third, the large tent doesn’t have water, which complicates basic necessities such as bathroom access, and parts of the facility began falling apart months after opening.

Its safety and security were also called into question soon after it opened.

While Washoe County officials can’t – or won’t – say the City of Reno and those pushing to quickly construct the facility in 2020 built a flawed shelter operation, it is clear what the city handed over to the county last year fell short of initial claims.

Showers and restrooms had to be closed due to overuse less than a year after opening. A former Volunteers of America employee told This Is Reno that’s because the city used, in some cases, materials not suitable for such a large population.

The phased development of the remainder of the Nevada Cares Campus includes division of sections in the Sprung building, a welcome building with dining room, and permanent supportive housing. Image: Washoe County

The structure itself, a Sprung tent, only has a 20-year lifespan, according to the county’s Dana Searcy. New infrastructure at the property will be more durable, she told county commissioners in April

All of these issues have Washoe County officials proceeding with a number of changes, new facilities and completely changing the inside of the campus’ large tent structure. 

Smaller “dorms” will be added inside – now, open areas are filled with cots and bunks with little to no privacy for residents.

“We are developing about six different dorms, which will allow us to further separate populations: women, frail, seniors, that kind of thing,” Searcy said. “We do have a lot of needs. We have a lot of working people in the building. We want to make sure that we can adjust and accommodate for their sleep schedule and that kind of thing.”

Walls need to be added within the structure to accomplish that. An adjacent property, that is occupied by garage bays, will become a resource center with showers, community court, laundry facilities and a mail center for campus residents to get postal service.

“We receive mail for about 1,300 individuals, not only those staying at Cares Campus but for anyone in the community who doesn’t have an address, or who wants to use this address, can,” Searcy said.

Supportive housing is planned for the property as well. 

Environmental remediation is required due to fuel tanks on part of the property that the Reno Housing Authority is slated to sell to the county.

The bowl in the old baseball field has been filled in, which will support further housing options. 

The campus’ mod-pods will remain. A new welcome center is under construction. 

Searcy said the changes to property were prompted by changing needs. When the Cares Campus was built, during the height of the pandemic, needs were different. 

Searcy also admitted the shelter has been at or near capacity since it opened. City of Reno officials originally said it would have a capacity of more than 900 people, but that figure changed over time to about 600.

“We always had the intention of taking it to the next level,” Searcy said. “There’s been a lot of tweaks and changes. It met the need at the time, and now we’re just trying to evolve it to meet the future need.”

Up to a dozen calls for police and medical services to the campus each day have prompted the county to provide nursing services on site. County commissioners in October 2021 approved the transfer of some of the campus’ land to Northern Nevada HOPES for a health clinic.

“We never intended to have medical services or mental health support here at the campus,” Searcy added. “We were going to refer out and use our partners in the region, which is what a lot of our programs do, but seeing the sheer need and understanding our population, we’ve now built that in.”

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