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Editorial: Lies, damned lies and Washoe County statistics

Date:

By Bob Conrad and Kristen Hackbarth

Washoe County officials last year announced with a straight face that homelessness is being reduced in the region. Most media saw that claim for what it was: spin.

This year, the headline for the annual point-in-time count data was a bit different. Poor government employees had to admit their data show “a slight increase” in this year’s count of those experiencing homelessness. But, their data “show an overall decrease in homelessness over time,” anonymous county employees claimed in the next sentence. 

The county is basing a jump in numbers a few years ago, followed by a drop in homelessness in subsequent years, as the reason homelessness is supposedly on the decline in the region.

The 2023 claim is misleading – and false when considering longitudinal trends – but that didn’t stop a PR-driven media blitz late last year that had people like the mayor going to national news media to spread the news about how Reno has, according to them, reduced homelessness by as much as 60%.

Anyone living here, who’s moderately reasonable, knows how laughable that is. But that didn’t stop Mayor Hillary Schieve from going on a National Public Radio “Here and Now” segment last week to further discuss how wonderful Reno has been in dealing with homelessness. “Here and Now” host Deepa Fernandes claimed in a question/statement to Schieve that our community has “cut homelessness dramatically over the past year.” 

That is, of course, false, but such claims stem from the sketchy way county employees are isolating a few years’ worth of data to make dodgy pronouncements. (Fernandes was notified of her erroneous statement but has yet to respond.)

We’ve been reporting on homelessness for nearly a decade and have been ensuring the Reno-area homeless situation is fairly and accurately reported. If the 60% drop in homelessness were true, we would be first in line to write that headline.

That’s not the case. We’ll never know the exact number of people living homeless—something ultimately impossible to determine—but the county’s and Schieve’s claims are not supported by Washoe County’s own data. 

Nevertheless, they persist in making unsupported claims. Our research into the numbers was published in January. We looked at various measurements going back to 2007. There have been dips and increases in numbers in recent years, but there is no doubt Reno’s homeless population has continued to grow. 

We specifically asked county officials on Wednesday to provide the data being used to make the claim homelessness is on the decrease. They did not answer the question or provide the information.

Various factors influence the ways people are counted, including population growth, but the county’s murky presentation and bizarre claims appear to, as we noted in January, only serve political and public relations interests. We suspect that to be the case even more so when the same employees within the county’s Housing and Homeless Services making those claims refuse to back them up with supporting information, answer questions, make attempts at trasparency, and so on and so forth.

Schieve also told NPR that past attempts to address the problem of homelessness did not work, but there is little evidence that current attempts are much better, if at all, despite an increase in services and investments in federal dollars. Indeed, shelters remain consistently full, and the death rates of those experiencing homelessness in our region continue to climb. A record high of 135 people, considered “indigent,” died in 2023, which is up from 22 in 2016, when we first began reporting on these tragedies.

Few are buying recent claims made to national news media. We’ve been contacted by those working with local shelters and homeless services, politicians and others concerned about the issue. They said they are outraged by the deliberate obfuscation by local officials. 

“Politicians need to stop playing this game of smoke and mirrors, face the reality of the situation and act!” one person wrote online.

A few even said spinning numbers this way offers false hope to other jurisdictions led to believe local governments in our area can somehow serve as any kind of a national model to address the problem of homelessness.

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