Who “really” cares?
Planned citizen’s arrest provokes divided community response
“To all Illegal Squatters in Pickett Park: We love and care for you enough to citizens arrest every one of you who is found in violation of the City of Reno laws,” read a flier circulated last week on the internet and handed out to homeless people living in the aforementioned park near Renown Regional Medical Center.
The flier came from Quality of Life Reno, a nonprofit group that describes itself as “a group of Reno residents working together to improve issues affecting Reno's quality of life.” The flier also said the group intended to carry out its planned “arrests” on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 12.
In addition to detailing the “what,” “when” and “where,” the flier went on to describe the “who” and “why” behind the planned citizens' arrests, noting that participants would be “community member volunteers” working with QOL and that they were motivated by residents' “present situation; lying around in filth, drugs/alcohol, crime, and—where it applies—avoiding seeking treatment for mental illness.”
Its release caused immediate outrage on social media and spurred the creation of a competing event scheduled for the same time and location called “Bring some love to Pickett Park,” with hundreds of locals signing up to bring food, clothing and hygiene products to the homeless population there and in other parks around the valley.
The day before the events, however, Reno police officers arrived at the park to advise people staying there of QOL-Reno's intended citizen's arrest activities. Most opted to clear out of the park, one woman with the help of a representative from the Reno Ambassadors group and Reno City Councilmember Neoma Jardon.
In response, QOL-Reno announced it had canceled its planned activities, saying on its website, “RPD proved conclusively that they can keep our parks free of garbage, human waste, drug use, and criminal activity when they want to. QOL-Reno will continue to monitor this improved situation at Pickett Park and report on it to the community.”
The organizers of the opposing event chose to hold theirs anyway.
“The [homeless] population opted to leave, and, when they left, the city had to clear out their belongings, which is really unfortunate,” said organizer Alex Alcantar, during an interview on the morning of the event in Pickett Park. “But just because QOL is not coming down, we wanted to make sure that we kept the momentum.”
Hundreds of volunteers gathered that morning to pass out clothes, food, bags of toiletries and other supplies in Pickett Park and other nearby parks. Amid the bustle, many discussed QOL-Reno's flier.
“We saw the flier online probably Wednesday,” said Kim Barghouti, director of market operations for local nonprofit Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, which works to provide food and housing to the valley's homeless community. “We were appalled, quite honestly. We were struggling really to know exactly how to help. I did come out Thursday and talk to the people who were living here just to make sure they were aware this was going on—and to see if there was something we could do for them.”
For Alcantar, the hope is that the event he organized might spur the community to more regular action.
“I don't know how that works, but I'm all ears, and I want to get engagement from people and make sure that we can … do this better,” he said. “How can we not lose this steam?”
And for groups like RISE—which, among its other work, hosts a free dinner with supplies distribution for homeless people three Saturdays a month—continued momentum would be helpful.
“I struggle every week to get enough donations, and so when I see all of these donations it's kind of a mixed blessing,” said Barghouti. “I'm like, ‘Yes, this is great. Distribute it,' and ‘Gee, I could use this next week—and the week after and the week after.' It's 52 weeks of the year.”
In the meantime, RISE has additional issues on its radars.
“We created a new petition asking the city and the county for safe camps, just some ground, some place where people can camp without worrying about this kind of vigilante stuff going on—and one that will provide basics services, so toilets and that kind of stuff,” Barghouti said. “There's somehow this disconnect in people's brains. There's a difference between people who are poor or are having difficulties and people who are homeless. They don't seem to understand that people are homeless because they're poor or they are in difficult situations.”
QOL-Reno Director Paul White disagrees with that sentiment.
“It's a self-destructive lifestyle for the vagrants—and, see, homeless is just not an accurate description,” he said. “There's not one person in that park … who is willing to go into the countless program openings that there are right today, right this morning, right then.”
According to White, QOL-Reno is interested is interested in helping homeless people access existing resources in the community.
“With a woman, it's effortless,” he said. “There's all kinds of women's programs where they can come right off of the street. … We can get them working the next day. There are 20 employment agencies in town, and none of them can find enough clients. Twenty-five food pantries—each one of them can give you more food in a week than you can eat.”
White—who said he received more than 600 threatening calls, including death threats, within a 48-hour period of announcing the planned arrests—also said people don't understand how such a thing would be carried out.
“Say you go down there—say the cops had not cleaned it up—and you've got somebody there illegally storing their stuff,” he said. “OK, well, call the cops or walk over to a cop, and you'd say, ‘This is a violation of the municipal code. I want to file a citizen's arrest complaint.' Cop would go over and look at it, and say, ‘Yep.' He'd write it out. We'd sign it. He'd give it to them, and we'd have a court date. … Can you believe, for that, these people were getting hysterical? That flier didn't say anything about grabbing them, handcuffing them … anything. It's just a lot of health, safety, quality-of-life violations down there that don't help them and ruin that park and are against the law.”
Still, some homeless people who've been staying at the park expressed concern about the way potential citizens' arrests by QOL-Reno would have played out. Danny, who preferred to be identified by his first name only, is a homeless man who said he's been living in his car with his wife at Pickett Park the past four months.
“I told her, when I heard they were going to do citizens' arrests, I said, ‘Well, if someone other than a police officer comes up and puts their hands on you, they're probably going to get hurt,'” Danny said. “People get robbed and raped and stabbed … in today's world.”
He added that assertions of public health violations and crime from QOL-Reno members are unfounded.
“The park ranger here, he doesn't mind us being here because we keep the park clean, the parking lot clean, the bathrooms cleaned up,” he said. “It makes his job easier.”