Reno City Council’s Treatment of the Homeless Generates Criticism

(Originally written on Nov. 2, 2015. Part of a longer piece on gentrification and homeless people in Reno. Stay tuned for Pt. 2.)

Reno has been experiencing a silent but significant shift with one of its populations. Recently, homeless people have been evicted and removed from their various camps within the city; pushed to other locations. This change has been the subject of much criticism by various activists and organizations. The main target of these critiques has been the Reno City Council, including the City of Reno’s mayor Hillary Schieve.

On Oct. 21, Schieve visited the University of Nevada, Reno and gave a press conference to Professor Caesar Andrews’ Journalism 207 class. Schieve was asked questions on many topics, ranging from her work with her small business to her struggles as a woman within the City of Reno’s male-dominated bureaucracy. A topic she briefly touched on was how The City would deal with the homeless population in Reno.

“A huge [problem] is drug addiction,” Schieve said. “We have a huge stakeholder, her name is Stacie Mathewson, who is going to donate millions of dollars to do a public/private partnership for things like that.”

According to Schieve, the City of Reno has recently introduced a plan to help the homeless population. In an article published by the Reno Gazette Journal, this program, called Reno Works, is giving 20 people from a Reno homeless shelter temporary jobs. This part-time work is designed to give homeless people a chance to get back on their feet. The program was approved by the Reno City Council on Aug. 26 and is to last 18 weeks.

However, Reno Works will only serve 20 people; a small portion of the projected total of people who are living without homes. In a 2013 report by the Reno News and Review, it was estimated that around 869 homeless people lived in the Reno area. It is unknown if the number of homeless people has increased or decreased since then.

More actions by The City were taken regarding the homeless just one day after Schieve spoke at UNR. On the morning of Oct. 22, City of Reno officials and police visited a homeless camp under the Wells Street Bridge by 5th Street, sprayed “No Trespassing” signs on the walls, brought two large dumpsters and told the residents to leave by that upcoming Sunday morning.

Isa King is a homeless woman who had been living at that camp for a month. She was very upset with the actions by The City and the police. According to King, this specific camp was an ideal location because of the resources that were available in the area.

“We don’t know where to go,” King said. “Every place we go, they push us out. We have no place else to go. Some of us are not out here because we want to be, we’re here because we have to be.”

A night before the Reno Police Department removed the members of the camp, local activists organized a potluck and coat drive to help feed and warm the homeless. The Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality and Food Not Bombs Reno were the two main organizations that hosted this event.

“I think there were probably like 10 or 15 people helping out with the potluck,” said Christopher Kloth, a graduate student in UNR’s Philosophy Department. Kloth helped volunteer during the potluck. “There were probably 20 to 25 homeless folks who came through. They were all really thankful, really happy to see us out there helping out.”

Sarah Real is an activist who is involved with both RISE and Food Not Bombs. According to Real, in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 26, police came and asked the rest of the homeless population in the area to leave; one day after they had originally planned. Although they threatened people with arrest, no one was taken into custody.

Backlash against the City of Reno continued after this removal. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, advocates visited City Hall to speak at the City Council meeting. The online video and document shows that a large portion of the public comments were critiques of The City’s removal of the Wells Street Bridge camp. Advocate after advocate spoke at the meeting, expressing their disdain with the City of Reno’s actions. According to William James Wright, a man who was removed from the Wells Street Bridge camp, the shelters in Reno are at maximum capacity and are not always safe for the residents who stay there. Wright also expressed his anger and sadness at the allegedly unfair treatment of the homeless by the City of Reno police.

In a video interview with ThisIsReno following the City Council meeting, Jason Soto, Reno’s Chief of Police addressed the camp’s removal.

“It was brought to our attention by some of the business community, some of the passerby’s, that there was some clean up that needed to be done in that area,” Soto said. “I instructed our officers not to make any arrests and to provide resources to the homeless individuals to see if we can get them help from the community or family members.”

It is unknown what the future holds for the homeless population in Reno. “We have to provide better services,” said Schieve. “Not only here, but across the country, for mental illness. I mean, look at what’s going on, it’s crazy.”

To reach Jose Olivares, find him on Twitter: Jose Olivares