By Kristen Hackbarth and Bob Conrad
Nearly as many people living homeless died in the first seven months of 2022 as in all of 2021 according to data provided to This Is Reno this week by Washoe County.
From January through July of this year there have been 49 recorded deaths of people living homeless, or considered indigent by Washoe County. In 2021, 54 people living homeless died.
The number of deaths last year, first reported by This Is Reno, prompted a vigil downtown held in February by numerous faith leaders and advocates for the homeless.
“There’s a casual acceptance of their early passing that is somehow to be expected, or that it’s their destiny,” Ben Castro with the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality said during the gathering. “That sort of apathy is a death sentence. I think we can do better.”
Most of those who died so far this year were male, and four were female.
Washoe County started tracking homeless deaths in 2016 – when just 22 deaths made the list – and the annual total has continued to increase every year.
“This is a number that we don’t want to see, but I would caution against extrapolating for the rest of the year,” said Bethany Drysdale, spokesperson for Washoe County, which oversees homeless services in the region, including the Nevada Cares Campus. “What we can do is continue to work with individuals to get them into assistance programs and into housing.”
The number of people experiencing homelessness in the area, and the amount of money local governments have spent trying to get people off the streets, has also increased.
From 2016 to 2022 the number of people living homeless in Washoe County has increased from 989 to 1,605, according to the point in time count.
The count, also known as the PIT count, is an annual one-night count used to measure homelessness and required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s conducted on one night during the last 10 days of January each year.
A consultant to Washoe County last year said the number could be much greater.
“This population is more visible, more vulnerable and less able to access effective services than any other population,” Jon DeCarmine reported in November. “According to the Northern Nevada Continuum of Care, unsheltered homelessness has increased by more than 800% since 2017, despite relative stability in the total number of people experiencing homelessness…”
Over the past two years, Reno, Sparks and Washoe County have also spent millions to house homeless individuals.
The Nevada Cares Campus, when it was approved in 2020 as a “super shelter” capable of housing up to 900 people, was estimated to cost $86 million, funded in large part by federal COVID relief funds provided to Reno, Sparks and Washoe County.
Once opened, the shelter housed far fewer people than anticipated -- about 600.
Operating costs were estimated at $5.6 million per year, however those costs have likely doubled due to staffing challenges and the need for costly repairs to the facility, parts of which began falling apart within months of being open.
Washoe County Commissioners earlier this year approved an additional $6.1 million to hire and retain staff for the facility.
Commissioners in April approved another $71 million to upgrade portions of the facility and build transitional housing, an intake center and dining facility.
Additional funds have been spent on other shelters in recent years, including the Our Place shelter for women and children, and on numerous homeless camp cleanups.