Moving the service-resistant homeless from Sleeping Bag City spreads the problem out—and that’s the intent
William Howard, 57, said he was still sleeping at around 7 or 8 a.m. when a police officer came by and kicked the tarp under which he and some other men were camping.
“He woke us up and told us we had to be out of here,” Howard said. “Told us to pack our stuff.”
Police made several visits to the sidewalk sleepers on Record Street before noon on Dec. 2, the day after the Reno City Council voted to expand the downtown area in which sleeping on the sidewalk is illegal.
The police were “really nice” on subsequent visits, Howard said. One officer explained why it was necessary to clear the sidewalks that had been lined for the past several months with blankets, sleeping pads, tents, tarps, personal belongings, trash and mattresses. People in wheelchairs were not able get through to Reno’s homeless services campus without going down the middle of Record Street.
Howard and his friends weren’t sure whether they needed to leave immediately or whether they could sleep on Record Street until Monday Dec. 6, the date “sidewalk sleepers” were officially slated to be off the street. They’d seen a police officer with a pick-up truck begin removing nearby mounds of blankets, pillows and pads.
Howard and his friends packed their belongings into three shopping carts. But in the early afternoon, the men were still there, sitting on sleeping mats, woven plastic grocery bags, smoking rollies and making plans.
“We’re going down on the river,” said Mike McDowell, 57, who came to Reno from Klamath Falls, Ore. “We got nowhere else to go. I told the officer that.”
The men had avoided the river because a person receives a fine for camping there. A man from Washington who identified himself only as “Scott” said he asked the police if they would pursue the homeless men to the river.
“The officer said to me, ‘There’s 100,000 people on the river. You’ll just be one of ’em.’ He really said that.”
At last count in January, 239 homeless individuals lived along the streets, near the river and in the parks in Reno. That was up from 55 in 2009, 98 in 2008 and 178 in 2005. In a report compiled by Kelly Marschall of Social Entrepreneurs Inc., 60 percent listed “unemployment or lost job” as the reason for being homeless. Another count takes place in January 2011.
Howard comes from Lexington, Ky., he said, but most recently found himself “stranded” in Sacramento. A church gave him a bus ticket to Reno.
“They’re always just moving everybody around,” Howard said. “I’m thinking of staying here. It’s going to get warm. I’m going to find something, anything. I’ll sweep floors. Anything.”
One cold night, Scott said he signed up at 4 p.m. for the emergency cold weather shelter on Edison Way. A bus leaves Record Street around 5 p.m. Men receive one box to store their possessions they can’t bring to the Edison shelter.
At the shelter, men receive a sleeping pad and blanket.
“People go in there and sleep,” Scott said. “They need movies or a couple of TVs. And coffee.”
“Coffee,” McDowell repeated. “Yeah.”
Early in the morning, men ride back to Record Street. There, they wait to go back to the shelter.
Howard wasn’t interested.
“I may not want to go to sleep at 6 p.m.,” he said. “And I may want to leave at 2 a.m. and take a walk.”
“You go walking at 2 a.m. on the river—that’s high-drunk time,” Scott warned.
“I’d rather be on the street,” Howard said. “There are five of us.”
McDowell came to Reno two months ago to find work.
“There’s nothing in Klamath,” he said. “People said, ‘Go to Reno, it’s kicking there.’” He took a drag from his hand-rolled cigarette. “I found out different.”
So far, he’d worked one job—four hours of temporary day labor, packing holiday gift bags.
A police car rolled by. The men watched carefully.
“I see the police,” Howard said.“They’ll be here all day,” Scott said.
“You go to sleep at night and wake up evicted the next morning,” Howard said, shaking his head.
Evicting the homeless
A 39-year-old Reno graphic artist showed up at Reno City Hall on his lunch hour Dec. 1 to protest the treatment of the sidewalk sleepers.
Willie Puchert sat outside the council chambers with a sign: “A government’s basic covenant with its people is to care for those in need.”
“We have plenty of money to subsidize developers,” Puchert said. “But we can’t seem to be able to provide for the homeless.”
The council unanimously approved a change to a city ordinance that expands the zone in which “sitting or lying down on public sidewalks” is an “offense against public peace”—and a misdemeanor.
Before the vote, Councilman Dave Aiazzi said he took offense at those, including the Reno News & Review, who questioned the city’s morals. He said the city has gone beyond its legal obligation to build a shelter and pay for homeless services.
The people in question are service-resistant individuals who turn down all offers of help, Aiazzi later added.
“When you drive by there, you see people camped out on the sidewalk,” he said. “It’s not passable by anyone. … We try to do everything we can to accommodate them, but I don’t know what to do with these folks. You can’t let them take over.”
The vote expanded the boundaries of the area in which it’s illegal to sleep on sidewalks to Interstate 80 (north), California Avenue (south), Keystone Avenue (west) and Wells Avenue (east). Though the expansion seemed aimed at the Record Street sidewalk sleepers, the law will be enforced equitably, said Reno Police Department Deputy Chief William Rulla.
“The ordinance has been in effect since 1995,” Rulla said. “It’s just an expansion.”
The Record Street sidewalk sleepers will be treated the same as any individual setting up camp in front of, say, the Knitting Factory on North Virginia.
“We give them a warning and say we’ll be back in half an hour—so get your stuff cleaned up,” Rulla said. If the individual resists, he or she could be cited or arrested.
The number of sidewalk sleepers on Record Street seems to have increased proportionate to a decrease in Tent City’s population. Earlier this year, Reno’s Tent City, now called Safe Ground, began enforcing shelter-like rules that included strict curfews and forbade pets. By fall, the sidewalk sleepers of Record Street were irritating Fourth Street business owners and complicating plans to redevelop an area near the Freight House District and the Reno Aces stadium.
Homeless services staff worried that women and children accessing services had to walk through this new Sleeping Bag City, a block-long stretch of blankets and tarps punctuated by occasionally belligerent individuals.
On Dec. 2, before the area was cleared, untreated mental illnesses infused the area with an asylum vibe. One boisterous woman greeted visitors with, “Get out of our motel! You are not our friends!” A 30-something man wandered along the curb, muttering unintelligibly, then chanting, “Giants! Defense!”
Brandy Fogerty, 59, a thin woman wearing a hospital bracelet, offered to share a partially eaten Costco pumpkin pie. She said she’s undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. She also said she’s living in a Peterbilt truck. Her hands felt feverishly warm.
Some street denizens shouted amiable but profane greetings to friends.
Most sat placidly on mats or sleeping bags, waiting for the next food event—like the cart with orange juice and day-old pastries taken to Tent City in the morning or gospel mission lunch at 11:30 a.m.
Rulla instructed officers to tell the sidewalk sleepers that they needed to clear off the street by Monday, Dec. 6. Though sidewalk sleeping is a misdemeanor offense, arrest is an option—if all else fails.
“We will make sure we have [shelter] rooms available before we address people on the sidewalk,” Rulla said.
Rulla has dealt with Reno’s homeless for 10 years. He’s familiar with the reasons that people won’t access services. Couples don’t want to be split up. Individuals don’t want to give up pets. Individuals with mental health issues aren’t taking prescribed medications but self-medicate with illegal drugs and/or alcohol.
The police hope they can identify and help such people—not merely throw them in jail.
“Let’s say they get arrested for drugs, and it’s a mental health issue,” Rulla said. “We try to address that.”
This makes economic sense. A Housing For All “action plan” crafted in 2006 estimated the cost of jailing Reno’s homeless to be $83.51 per person per day. Emergency shelter costs $32 per day.
In 2005, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about a homeless Reno man named Murray Barr, an alcoholic whose hospital and doctor’s office expenses were tracked by the police department. In “Million-Dollar Murray,” Gladwell quoted Reno bicycle cop Patrick O’Bryan: “It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray.”
Gladwell concluded that the cost of doing nothing about chronic homelessness is greater than the cost of intervention: “Murray Barr used more health-care dollars, after all, than almost anyone in the state of Nevada. It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment.”
The city of Reno contributed about $917,000 to shelter operations this year, compared with Washoe County’s near $700,000 and Sparks’ $51,000. About $620,000 came from other donors. Aiazzi said the city is working on equitable cost distribution. He said the money’s well spent.
“This still saves taxpayer money,” he said. “The county has to pay for every person who has to go to Renown for an accident or illness or to keep warm in the waiting room.”
In 2006, the Housing For All plan reported $10.4 million spent on indigent health care.
Breaking up the sidewalk sleepers will not make the homeless magically disappear, Rulla acknowledged.
“Naturally, people are going to move away from campus, and things are going to pop up elsewhere,” he said. But a similar approach decentralized gang culture in Reno about a decade ago.
Years ago, the Neil Road area was “highly gang-infested.”
“We attacked that problem,” he said. “We eventually eliminated it on Neil, but the problem got displaced to other areas in the city.”
Instead of 100 homeless individuals in one area, smaller groups of, say, 25 might band together in one area and 25 in another. Rulla called this “weeding down the problem.”
“You can try to solve a problem completely, in a perfect world, or … displace it, push it all over town until it goes away,” he said. “Obviously the best thing is to eliminate a problem all together.”
Rulla hopes community outreach will help.
“But I’m an educated person,” Rulla said. “The sociologist in me says Reno is just a microcosm, a small snapshot of the growing homeless problem in our nation.”
No ‘budge’ in budget
Ellen Lewis, 52, sat on the Record Street curb, feeding bread to pigeons after lunch.
“I know I’m not supposed to feed them,” she said. “But I’m an animal person.”
A lifelong Nevadan and Reno High alumna, Lewis has been living at the women’s shelter since she lost her rented room in early November.
She fears the effort to clean up Record Street will backfire.
“It might clean up this area,” Lewis said. “But evicting them from here doesn’t mean they have some place to go. This area contains the problem. Now, that problem will be spread out all over Reno. There’ll be a lot of upset tourists and business owners. It’s not helping at all.”
Lewis became homeless one month ago. The catalyst? A $250 fine from the Department of Motor Vehicles for lapsed car insurance. Lewis, who lives on Social Security disability and a small federal pension, fell behind on rent.
“My budget has no budge in it at all,” she quipped. Checks bounced. Her landlady evicted her the first week of November.
Now each night, Lewis attends dinner at the homeless services campus at 5 p.m. After dinner, she walks a few blocks to the House of Prayer’s undisclosed location.
By 5:45 p.m., the house is locked. Women take showers. At 7 p.m., they watch a movie. Lights out at 9 p.m. At 6:30 a.m., there’s a cheery “Good morning, ladies! Time to wake up.”
Lewis, though appreciative, is not a morning person.
“I’m usually getting to sleep around that time,” she said. “But you get up, make your bed and do a chore. By 7:30, we’re out.”
A day room with about 20 plastic chairs opens at 8 a.m. Breakfast is served at 8:30 a.m.
Before coming to the shelter, Lewis spent a few nights in a U-Haul and her ’97 Toyota. She also rented a motel room for two nights.
“That was a waste of $70,” she said now. “I could have used that money.”
She hoped to save enough to find a place in December. But her ex-landlord cashed that November rent check, leaving her with $3 in checking.
She’s thankful for the women’s shelter, where she has already outlasted the 14-day stay limit.
“They’re keeping me alive,” Lewis said. “I appreciate that more than a person who has a home can realize. … What I need is for someone to wave a magic wand and give me $400 or $500 cash.”
‘Begging them to come in’
Most people don’t become homeless simply because they lose jobs, theorized Reno homeless coordinator and housing resource specialist Krista Lee. Many have substance abuse or mental health issues that make their job histories tenuous at best.
“The economy is not why they’re becoming homeless, but it’s why they’re staying homeless,” Lee explained. As people apply to access services, those receiving assistance and working to overcome substance abuse or stabilize mental health issues are not returning to the workforce.
The recently homeless compete for permanent jobs with other out-of-work Nevadans who have tidier employment histories and better resumes.
“And they’re applying with no phone numbers and no address,” Lee said. The shelter has a message phone. But getting messages is a bit hit-or-miss. As for addresses, “They can list ours, but when some employers see ‘Record Street’ on a job application, they automatically dismiss you.”
It’s a frustrating cycle.
“That’s why we’re having trouble getting people off the streets,” Lee said.
The emergency cold weather shelter on Edison Way didn’t open as planned on Nov. 1 because the city was looking for an organization to run it. The shelter’s day rooms were opened on cold nights. People couldn’t lie down, but they could keep warm sitting at cafeteria-style tables.
Volunteers of America, a national church organization hired by the city of Reno to run local shelters, agreed to run the Edison shelter but needed time to hire and train staff.
The Edison emergency shelter opened Nov. 24, the night before Thanksgiving, just in time for a record-low freeze. One homeless man, not yet identified, was found dead in an alley off Wells Avenue on Thanksgiving Day. Toxicology reports were pending, but police feared the cold weather was a factor.
“Unfortunately, he might have been a victim of the elements,” said RPD Lt. Mohammad Rafaqat.
Homeless services staffers do outreach on the streets several times a day.
“We’re literally begging them to come in from the cold,” Lee said.
She gets frustrated with those who camp outside the gate but refuse to take advantage of the Edison shelter or the women’s shelter—which has open beds.
Many who rely on the homeless services campus for meals and/or shelter, especially those with children, have told Lee they feel uncomfortable walking past the sidewalk sleepers. Lee has observed many sidewalk sleepers using drugs and alcohol daily. Many have untreated, severe mental health issues.
“I’m sure they feel safer there,” she said. “And people drive by and dump food and blankets for them. They can come in and eat. People serve meals in the parking lot.”
Last year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, Lee said, a person could have four or five holiday feasts.
“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.”
She appreciates people who want to help. But long-term solutions require housing and supportive services. With these in place, a person’s health and dental care improves, and self-esteem goes up. That leads to employment, income and stable relationships, Lee said.
“They don’t need five pairs of gloves and two hats,” she said. “We’re never going to resolve this if we don’t have affordable housing.”
Some homeless individuals receive Social Security disability checks for around $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.
Housing assistance programs, like Section 8 housing, stopped adding names to waiting lists in January, nearly a year ago. Half the residents of Tent City, Lee said, have applied for housing subsidies that they’d feel lucky to receive by summer.
“They’ll be camping at Tent City all winter,” she said.
Barb Frey, a UNR graduate student in social work, interns on the homeless services campus. She’s impressed with the work being done—yet feels daunted by the challenges.
“There’s a different reason for every person sitting out there,” she said. “But I suppose the bottom line is they’re all human beings just like us.”
Frey understands the desperation of the “rough sleepers,” a British term she used to describe those living on the sidewalks. Frey lost her banking job in an early round of lay-offs.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I had the resources to go to school. Now I hope I’ll have a job when I get out of school.”
‘Too much shit’
The men waiting on Record Street with overflowing shopping carts were joined by a 38-year-old female, hair in pigtails, wearing a hooded Rob Zombie sweatshirt.
She didn’t want her name or photo in the paper. Her story? Kicked out of Tent City for fighting.
“It’s a bunch of damn politics,” she said. “Some guy spit in my face. I slapped the shit out of him.”
She planned to move back into Tent City on Dec. 1 but was later told that she can’t move in until Jan. 1.
“I’m too outgoing,” she said. “I like to give everyone a hug.”
She reached to the sky.
“See that? That’s a whole bunch of heaven. If you reach out and grab a little piece of it and put it in your heart, you got God all over you.”
She won’t go to the women’s shelter where she’d be “locked up” before 6 p.m. and unable to smoke after 7:30 p.m.
“That’s too much shit,” she said.
Though she’s a certified traffic flagger, she said she’s unable to get work until she saves up $250 for the required OSHA card.
“They want to get us off the street? Give us a job. These are hard workers out here.”
“Hell, yeah,” a friend chimed in.
“I believe in God and Mother Nature and the people out here,” she said. “I don’t believe in politics.”