Sidewalk sleepers of Record Street

Corner of Record and Fourth, against the brick wall of the Morris Hotel. Day before Thanksgiving. High: 27 degrees. Low: 10. Daniel R. “Shorty” Davis, 58, stood outside his “home”—a nest of blankets and crates covered with a blue tarp. Davis wore a sweatshirt and navy blue padded vest. A gray hat was pulled over his ears and tied under a bushy beard that would do Santa proud.

Davis was talking with Reno homeless coordinator and housing resource specialist Krista Lee, 29. She wore a hooded sweatshirt, hands in pockets, and tried to talk Davis into spending the night in a cold weather shelter on Edison Way. It was the shelter’s first night open. A bus would transport men there, five miles from downtown.

Davis rejected Lee’s offer politely.

“They’ll kick us out early in the morning, and what are we supposed to do then?” he asked.

“Well, isn’t it better than freezing out here, Daniel?” Lee suggested.

“For us, we’re OK,” he said. “Three nights ago, we sat up talking and laughing for hours. I love Reno. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Lee called them “sidewalk sleepers,” Davis and others camping outside the gates of Reno’s homeless services complex. She’s frustrated that many often refuse to access available services.

Sidewalk sleepers’ stories vary widely. One disabled man said he was “ripped off” by so-called friends. Others came to Nevada for jobs that didn’t pan out. Some use drugs and/or alcohol. Many are mentally ill.

Lee has an encyclopedic knowledge of the homeless on Record Street—from the sidewalk sleepers to the Tent City residents. She evinced a promise from Davis to come in and talk to her about getting money for a security deposit.

Davis observed that he has plenty of blankets and warm clothes. In fact, piles of blankets lined the street, wet with snowmelt. They were piled, along with assorted pillows and bedspreads, next to a nearby trashcan and draped over the cyclone fence. Soaked garments lined the gutter.

Well-meaning people often drive by and drop off blankets, clothes and food. Lee acknowledged a short-term benefit. She’s grateful for the help. But fixing homelessness depends on addressing a dire shortage of affordable housing in Reno.

“If people who donated food and blankets pooled resources, we could provide some affordable housing,” she said. “They’re spending on Band-Aids—hats and gloves—when they could get people off the streets.”

Some homeless individuals do receive Social Security checks for $674 per month.

“How are you supposed to rent an apartment, pay deposits and utilities and buy food on that?” Lee asked. Even motel rooms average $140 a week, not a viable long-term solution.

Davis, a Vietnam veteran with a prison record, blamed background checks for keeping him out of apartments. With his December check, he plans to rent a motel room with two beds. He’ll share the space with friends he met on Record Street.

“I can sleep on the floor,” he said. “I like that. It’s better for the body.”

Waiting lists for Section 8 and public housing assistance have been closed for nearly a year. Half the Tent City dwellers have applied for subsidized housing, Lee said, but will spend the winter camping, waiting for help next summer.

Sidewalk sleepers are another case. At its Dec. 1 meeting, the Reno City Council was expected to expand the definition of “downtown” in an ordinance that forbids sidewalk sleeping. This allows Reno police to evict or arrest Record Street sidewalk sleepers.

“I appreciate why the city wants to get us out of here,” Davis said. “They’re working to renovate the area so they need to chase us out. … We just want a place to live. Nothing fancy.”