The Washoe County Board of Commissioners today approved the initial drafting of an ordinance that will increase penalties for those camping without authorization in the county.
The draft ordinance is aimed to curtail illegal camping that has led to expensive cleanups and massive amounts of human waste, according to Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam.
The sheriff’s office, last year, similarly complained of nuisance dumping at a Sun Valley property with enough waste to be visible on Google Earth.
Balaam said the camping ordinance changes were recommended by the Community Homeless Advisory Board more than a year ago. County Commissioner Alexis Hill, who now chairs that board, said she was unaware of the ordinance changes until last week and said she needed more information.
Public commenters overwhelmingly spoke against the measure, however, calling it inhumane and illegal and saying it would lead to further criminalizing poverty in the Reno area.
“Homelessness is not a problem for the criminal justice system to solve, though,” Bridget Tevnan said. “Criminalizing homelessness through fines and prison sentences such as those proposed…is ineffective, expensive and exacerbates the challenges facing those living without permanent shelter and ultimately does not dissuade people from doing life-sustaining activities in public.”
Another commenter said Balaam’s proposal was evil.
Permanent, supportive housing, others said, is the way to address the issue as the Reno area continues to see a massive homeless population that has few options.
Balaam said Washoe County is the last of the local government agencies that does not have a camping ordinance, while Reno, Sparks and the Bureau of Land Management each have their own.
Despite language that allows for penalties of up to $500 and imprisonment, Balaam said jailing and punishing people is not the goal.
“We are not going out to cite somebody who is camping in their car,” he said. “We … try and get them into proper, safe shelter for them and the neighborhood.”
He admitted that ordinance changes, as proposed, would lead to those, if convicted under the ordinance, having a permanent criminal record.
The commission agenda item reads, “the amendments are being requested to add a section governing unauthorized camping and storage of personal property which may pose a risk of significant harm to any person, or public area…”
Commissioners had a lot of questions, and they approved the drafting of ordinance changes in 90 days in a 3-2 vote.
“I want to see some language,” Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said. “I have concerns. I want to be able to look at and ask questions of legal, of the sheriff… and how do you deal with that.”
He said he wants those who spoke during public comment to be a part of drafting the language.
The commission’s deputy district attorney said commissioners can proceed with drafting ordinance changes, but legal precedent sets limits on what is enforceable.
If the Cares Campus is full, citing or jailing people who are living outside would be illegal.
The county-operated campus remains full with more than 700 people on any given day.
Commissioners Jeanne Herman and Alexis Hill voted against the measure. Hill said she did not have enough information. She added that the punitive language in the county staff report should not be included in the ordinance if the goal is to not punish people.
“I haven’t been really given a lot of information about this,” Hill said.