Number 9, Number 9
Our intern Bethany Deines went the distance for her cover story last week, “8 things you didn’t know about being homeless in Reno,” but as long as a 3,000-word story is, that’s still not enough room to get in everything a writer wants to get into it. Of course, 6,000 words wouldn’t be enough to write a comprehensive story about something as complex as homelessness.
Fortunately, we editors have all the time and all the words in the world.
There was one thing that people don’t seem to realize about homelessness in Reno that we wished we’d gotten into the story, but space didn’t permit it. We’ve mentioned it before, anecdotally, but research done for this story confirmed it: Homeless people, who for one reason or another are unsuited to staying in shelters, are now staying in the suburbs. This is primarily because the last Reno City Council made it illegal to get caught sleeping downtown. Reasons for being unsuited to staying in shelters could include drug addictions, pet ownership, or being married and wanting to remain with a spouse.
Basically, individuals find unoccupied homes in the neighborhoods and sleep in the alleys behind them. The telltale sign is often a shopping cart. When’s the last time you saw a police cruiser checking alleyways when there wasn’t a crime in progress? We were told that areas with trees off hiking/running paths are good places to sleep. And even the old “sleeping under the bridge” classic has gained new fans with reports of more than 20 people sleeping under one bridge slightly out of the downtown area.
And while nobody was saying so publicly, during the time right before the overflow shelter opened, there were dozens of people illegally sleeping on the sidewalk outside the homeless shelter complex. In fact, that situation is what generated some of the complaints of police harassment—cops would come in the pre-dawn hours and roust the people sleeping there. The simplest explanation to this is the police wanted to allow them the safety of numbers, but officials didn’t want a public or business outcry at the return of tent city. And by the way, there were more serious complaints about police intimidation and violence toward homeless people that we didn’t write about because we haven’t gotten to the bottom of them yet.
The take-home lesson from this migration is that we—citizens of Reno, media and probably social services—have a less clear idea of the homeless problem in Reno. And the homeless people who are living alone are more vulnerable to the predations of criminals. Homeless people who live in alleys in order to avoid interacting with law enforcement and social services are less likely to get medical help when they need it. Homeless people who live under bridges in order to not go to jail for being impoverished are more likely to suffer from violent crime.
One effect of this shadow population was that the overflow shelter did not open for weeks after it was desperately needed. And the only people who knew how desperately it was needed were afraid to come forward.