Toxic mix: Job seekers, housing shortage

It’s obvious that there are more homeless people wandering Reno’s streets this year, reaching beyond the downtown core into neighborhoods that border the Truckee River and even into south Reno’s storm culverts and parks. Environmental advocates worry about the river’s water quality and safety issues, as needles proliferate from heroin addicts, and aggressive behavior by Truckee River denizens drives families away from bike paths and traditional recreation spots. Neighbors in West Reno encounter people sleeping in their yards or in nearby undergrowth, while others quietly doze in their cars for weeks on end, parked as inconspicuously as possible on residential streets. There are also reports of increasing numbers of people living in the foothills and desert lands surrounding Reno in makeshift, semi-permanent camps that aren’t likely to provide much shelter come winter.

Many residents want government to do something about the problem, even if it means sweeping the homeless into the jail on trespassing or other minor charges to teach them a lesson. When Anderson Dairy, a local business in Las Vegas, complained about sanitary conditions of makeshift homeless camps near their cows, the Las Vegas City Council considered passing a special ordinance to outlaw sitting, lying down, or camping on a sidewalk within 1,000 feet of a food processing facility. The ACLU threatened to sue on the constitutionality of the measure, and the council backed down, perhaps warned by a recent U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision stating that cities cannot criminalize homelessness by arresting people for sleeping in public.

While Reno isn’t the only city confronting a growing homeless population, the soaring cost of housing caused by economic development giveaways to wealthy corporations creating jobs for out-of-towners is exacerbating the problem. Landlords want to cash in on the booming rents, casting aside long-term tenants who struggle to find alternative housing they can afford. The hardest hit are the elderly or disabled living on a fixed income, and those with virtually no income at all.

In early September, community leaders celebrated the groundbreaking of a new 200-bed facility, the Village on Sage Street, to provide an affordable, although bare-bones, option to sleep indoors for those making no more than $3,000 per month. Residents will be charged $400 each month for a dorm-style room with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities down the hall. To be eligible, a monthly minimum income of $1,300 must be in hand along with a $400 security deposit, unfortunately leaving many people who live on social security or disability payments of $750-$850 a month out in the cold.

Still, one has to applaud the efforts of the Community Foundation of Northern Nevada and the City of Reno to actually create more housing instead of funding yet another study to establish that more affordable housing is needed in our community. The $8.3 million Village of dorm rooms should be open by Thanksgiving, offering shelter in time for the winter months.

But even if the income requirements are relaxed or partnerships are formed with agencies providing case management and other services for the chronically homeless, the 200 dorm rooms won’t make much of a dent in the need, especially as more motels are demolished and turned into a sea of empty lots that sit vacant with no published plan for development.

The City of Oakland, California, has taken on land speculators by floating the idea of a new tax on vacant property, hoping to force owners to build on their property instead of holding on to it while they wait for the value to increase. It’s a controversial idea, but Oakland, like Reno, is desperate for affordable housing, or at least more property taxes to provide services to the poor. As Reno’s neighborhoods west of downtown are transformed into blocks of empty lots, it’s an idea worth watching.