Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Student journalist Jordan Blevins looks into the impact new suggested anti vagrancy laws could have on homeless people and the surrounding residents of downtown Reno. This is an abbreviated and edited version of an article she wrote for a class project.

(Disclosure: The Our Town Reno coordinator interviewed in this report, Nico Colombant, is also the coordinator of the Reynolds Sandbox.)

As a park is cleaned on a recent morning, a homeless man is asked to move along. Photo from the Our Town Reno collective website: https://www.facebook.com/ourtownreno

Downtown Reno, Nevada, is a place whose rich history comes through in graffitied walls and vivacious personalities. Everywhere you look, there is someone with their own rich history — someone whose unique story is making an imprint on the city.

Homelessness is prevalent in the culture of downtown Reno.

“The homeless that use the shelter on 4th street are forced out of the shelter in the early morning hours and camping is illegal, so they try to hide and some have to go further down the Truckee River,” said Nico Colombant, the coordinator of an online reporting initiative called Our Town Reno.

Our Town Reno is a multi-media street reporting project that deals with issues regarding homelessness, displacement and poverty in the downtown corridors of the Biggest Little City.

“The goal of Our Town Reno is addressing how we can find a solution for all people in Reno to enjoy the city, including the least affluent members of the community,” Colombant said.

“There are a lot of services in Reno, if people can access those services,” Colombant added.

The Our Town Reno affiliated Instagram feed “biggestlittlestreets” recently highlighted some of the volunteers distributing food at Reno’s main homeless shelter.

New Anti Vagrancy Ordinances?

“But now police are seeking to pass anti vagrancy laws to crack down on the things that the homeless do,” Colombant said. “And if the city’s shelters are full, they can’t really send homeless to the shelter and so they have nowhere to go.”

There are still laws and regulations that the police department has to follow when it comes to dealing with the homeless.

“When we actually do that, we still have to follow the Jones v. the City of Los Angeles laws, so we are not going out and trying to just arrest someone taking a nap,” said Sergeant Wade Clark of the Reno Police Department. “We are trying to address the health and safety concerns and keep people safe.”

The Jones v. the City of Los Angeles 2006 ruling prevents criminalizing people who sleep on the streets when no shelter is available.

“I think the anti vagrancy laws are being misrepresented,” Clark said. “That’s more for the sex, the panhandling, stuff like that.”

“Today’s versions of these laws, however, are generally justified on different grounds, usually a city’s interest in sanitation, aesthetics, or protection of public safety,” is an excerpt from the academic article, We Can Do Better: Anti-Homeless Ordinances as Violations of State Substantive Due Process Law, by Andrew J. Liese, which was published in the Vanderbilt Law Review in 2006.

An anonymous homeless youth near Reno’s bus station featured in the 2016 Our Town Reno documentary Invisible Girl.

Compassion, Outreach Efforts and Working Opportunities

“There is nothing unsafe about a poor person just because they have less money,” Colombant said. “We shouldn’t give up on someone just because they need love and compassion.”

“I’ve interacted with several homeless people who told me, ‘if I was a thief, I wouldn’t be homeless’,” Colombant added. “Many homeless people become homeless due to terrible experiences that have happened in their lives. It’s not their choice.”

The police department says it works with social workers to provide services for homeless people.

“We do outreach and what that outreach is, is a combination with social workers from Nevada Hopes, Catholic Charities, and project ReStart with Volunteers of America,” Clark said.

“We go out and we make sure that the homeless know about the Reno Works program where the city actually pays for people to get jobs and job training to help set them up in the marketplace,” Clark said.

Having no place to legally stay besides the often full overnight shelters available around town makes it difficult for some homeless to go about their daily routines.

Police Awareness

“My unit is not heavy in enforcement because we feel that you cannot enforce your way out of a homeless situation because it is a social issue,” Clark said.

Police say they are aware of the mental health crises that homeless people undergo in their day to day lives.

“Most homeless people who are dealing with a mental health crisis may be required to have a legal hold on them or we will direct them to services, like Nevada Hopes, that have many different mental health services available for people without health insurance, and they are not discriminatory,” Clark said.

Activists help homeless whose encampments were disrupted along the Truckee River in this 2016 Our Town Reno file photo by Jose Olivares.

Trauma of Homelessness

Not many people are aware of the traumatic experiences that homeless people have to endure every single day.

According to a 2013 article from the academic journal, Housing, Theory, and Society, “homelessness is multidimensional. Homelessness involves deprivation across a number of different dimensions — physiological, emotional, territorial, ontological, and spiritual”.

“Homeless people, like everyone else, are primarily social beings, with specific histories, living in specific environments and relying to those environments and to other people, and also to themselves, in different ways,” the article continues.

Whether or not the proposed anti vagrancy ordinances are eventually passed in Reno, following opposition outcry at a recent City Council meeting and a postponement of their consideration, it remains to be seen how these would affect Reno’s homeless population.

Original Reporting by Jordan Blevins, Shared with and Edited by the Reynolds Sandbox



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Reynolds Sandbox

Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.