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New Year resolution: House our citizens (opinion)


Submitted By Jim McNamara

You can see them every morning, despite the below freezing temperatures. Exiting their tents, tarps, cars, trucks and other hideaways to find somewhere to relieve themselves and find some warmth. I see them as I begin my drive to find some homeless veterans that need transportation to our medical clinic, food banks, meetings with case workers to find temporary housing, or just to drop in to the center for hot coffee, a shower and a weekly opportunity to wash their clothes.

I see them moving about from South Meadows Parkway near Wendy’s, in the tunnels below Veterans Parkway. Their numbers increase as I enter the low income residential areas just east of Virginia Street and west of Kietzke from Gentry all the way to the Truckee River and below the baseball park.

These are the ones that won’t all be found on the annual count of homeless. These are the chronic homeless. Most that I see are solitary older (60+) males in poor health. Some have companion pets. Some exhibit signs of poor hygiene and possible substance abuse. I haven’t heard one yet say, “I enjoy being out here in this weather. Wouldn’t want to be in an apartment or hotel room and miss all this.” 

I often ask them if they are interested in going up to the Nevada Cares Campus off Fourth Street, where there are a few empty bunk beds, hot food and possibly showers. “No, thanks.” They had been transported there sometime in the last year and had a bad experience. Sometimes that meant being robbed, assaulted or just not treated like a human being.

Now, things have significantly improved at the campus and there are lots of private security people on the perimeter and a couple of dozen new county employees trying to bring order to the campus, but it seems to still be overwhelming for both them and the residents. It might take some incentives to get the chronic homeless to move themselves and their belongings back to the campus.

Inside the Nevada Cares Campus: The large tent structure is temporarily closed every other month to be treated for bedbugs and other pests, Washoe County officials said. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, July 11, 2022.
Inside the Nevada Cares Campus homeless shelter: The large tent structure is temporarily closed every other month to be treated for bedbugs and other pests, Washoe County officials said. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, July 11, 2022.

When you approach the campus, you see dozens of people in various manner of dress or undress. Dozens more experience homelessness on the sidewalks and lots nearby. Altogether, maybe 800 or so human beings in the large temporary shelter, the adjoining tent safe camp, and another 160 single women and families not far away at Our Place.  This is still less than half of the local homeless population.

When the County discusses citing and fining the homeless camping throughout Reno and Sparks and moving them onto that campus, there seems to be a lack of understanding of where these citizens will end up. If we use law enforcement and the criminal justice system to correct this issue (illegal camping) we will end up with more citizens incarcerated which adds more costs and a large burden on the county sheriff and our court system. If we are determined to move hundreds more people involuntarily to the campus, we need to rapidly acquire more units/rooms/beds and find a humane approach that doesn’t include destroying their belongings. 

I know that many find this sad, depressing and hopeless as if it has to be this way. Nope. This is solvable. We can house many of these people quickly.

The Washoe County Community Housing Capacity Analysis shows that this county already has 3,284 units/beds as of January 2021, the latest Washoe County data. However, 735 of those units are empty: 81 emergency beds, 475 temporary units and 179 permanent units. Why are they empty? We have barriers. No pets, no alcoholics, no criminal history, no current state ID, etc.

If this is an emergency, and I believe that it is, it’s time to act like it and move people into available housing.

I hear the arguments about people making mistakes and who has earned this and who hasn’t. So I propose this. Move every disabled person, veteran and senior over 62 years of age into these properties. Sure, there will be some recidivism. Move those back to the campus and move down the list. This would create a much more manageable situation at the Cares Campus. After all, the whole purpose of the campus is to move people that are unsheltered into that location for the basics of food, clothing and shelter, then move them to temporary or transition housing within weeks, then into permanent supportive housing. Wraparound support is supposed to be provided there to make residents ready to move into housing. It’s temporary, not permanent. 

Finally, let me say that things are moving in the right direction here. New housing units and conversions are being funded and beginning construction. New funds have been obligated to both the Cares Campus and to affordable housing. A residential mental health facility (formerly West Hills) is being purchased and will hopefully provide desperately needed capacity. Dedicated County workers and volunteers show up every day to help.

What we still need is the support of this entire community to address homelessness and prevent it. Every stakeholder — first responders, county sheriff, Reno and Sparks police, fire and REMSA, religious leaders, business owners, social workers and case managers — all should be heard from on how to best coordinate resources and solve problems that they see every day. Everyone should visit the Cares Campus, especially community leaders. For hours, not minutes.

Luminarias are lit in remembrance of people who died homeless during a vigil Feb. 23, 2022 in Reno, Nev. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Lastly, a few statistics from the HUD 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, by the numbers. In the last two years the national rate of homelessness has remained nearly unchanged.

  • 582,462 people homeless in January 2022 (up .3% since 2020).
  • 233,832 people unsheltered and homeless in January 2022.
  • 50,767 families with children homeless in 2022.
  • 33,129 veterans homeless in 2022 (down 11% since 2020, down 55.3% since 2010).
  • 127,705 chronic homeless (up 16% since 2020, up 20.4% since 2010).
  • 30,090 unaccompanied homeless youth (down 12% since 2020).

In Washoe County in 2022, 96 homeless citizens died while unhoused. In 2021, 57 died. In 2016, only 19 homeless citizens died.

Of the 96 deaths in Washoe County, 44 were due to drug use, four to hypothermia, two were heat related. The rest included deaths by collision with motor vehicles, trains, suicide and homicide.

Most of these deaths could be avoided by housing people first. If this trend continues, we will eventually solve the homeless problem by allowing them to die on our streets.

There are between 2,000-3,000 unhoused citizens in our county and that number is growing. They are hard to see from the suburbs and upscale neighborhoods, but they are here among us every day.

Homelessness is a mirror of our community. It is a reflection on all of us. 

Jim McNamara is a veteran, homeless advocate and retired commercial airline pilot who has spent decades volunteering in his community, including with the Boy Scouts, Tahoe Rim Trail Association, Nevada Cares Campus and Washoe County COVID-19 response.

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