New Year resolution: Home of our citizens (opinion)


Submitted by Jim McNamara

They can be seen every morning, despite the sub-zero temperature. They emerge from their tents, tarps, cars, trucks, and other hiding places to find a place to relieve themselves and keep warm. I see them as I begin my journey to find homeless veterans who need transportation to our medical clinic, food banks, meetings with social workers to find temporary housing, or just pop in downtown for hot coffee, showers, and weekly opportunity to wash clothes.

I see them moving from South Meadows Parkway near Wendy, in the tunnels under Veterans Parkway. Their numbers increase as I move into low-income residential areas east of Virginia Street and west of Kitzke from Gentry to the Truckee River and below the baseball park.

These are the ones that will not all be found in the annual homeless count. These are chronic bums. Most of the people I see are single older (60+) men in poor health. Some have pets. Some show signs of poor hygiene and possible substance abuse. I have yet to hear anyone say, “I love being here in this weather. I wouldn’t want to be in an apartment or a hotel room and miss it all.”

I often ask them if they’d like to go up to the Nevada Cares Campus on Fourth Street, where there are some empty bunk beds, hot meals, and maybe showers. “No, thanks.” They were moved there sometime last year and had a bad experience. Sometimes this meant robbery, assault, or simply inhuman treatment.

Things have improved a lot on campus now, with private security guards around the perimeter and a couple of dozen new district employees trying to clean up the campus, but it still seems to be too much for them and for the residents. Some incentives may be needed to get the chronically homeless to move themselves and their belongings back to campus.

Inside the Nevada Cares Campus homeless shelter: A large tent is temporarily closed every two months for bed bug and other pest control, Washoe County officials said. Image: Bob Conrad/This Is Reno, July 11, 2022

Approaching the campus, you will see dozens of people in different ways of dressing or undressing. Dozens of others are experiencing homelessness on sidewalks and lots nearby. There are about 800 people in total in a large temporary shelter, an adjoining tented safe camp, and another 160 single women and families nearby, in Our Place. This is still less than half of the local homeless population.

When the county discusses designating and fining homeless campsites in Reno and Sparks and moving them to this campus, there seems to be a lack of understanding of where these citizens will end up. If we use law enforcement and the criminal justice system to fix this problem (illegal camping), we’ll get more citizens incarcerated, increasing costs and placing a greater burden on the county sheriff and our court system. If we are determined to forcibly relocate hundreds more people to campus, we need to quickly acquire more units/rooms/beds and find a humane approach that does not include the destruction of their property.

I know a lot of people find it sad, depressing and hopeless, like it should be. Nope. This is allowed. We can accommodate many of these people quickly.

Analysis of Washoe County’s community housing capacity shows that as of January 2021, the county already has 3,284 units per bed (as of Washoe County’s latest figures). However, 735 of these departments are empty: 81 ambulance beds, 475 temporary departments and 179 permanent departments. Why are they empty? We have barriers. No pets, no alcoholics, no criminal history, no current ID, etc.

If this is an emergency, and I believe it is, then it’s time to act accordingly and relocate people to affordable housing.

I hear arguments about people making mistakes and who deserves it and who doesn’t. Therefore, I propose this. Relocate all disabled, veterans, and seniors over 62 to these facilities. Of course, there will be relapses. Move them back to campus and move down the list. This would create a much more manageable situation on the Cares campus. After all, the whole purpose of the campus is to move people who are homeless to this place for basic food, clothing, and shelter, and then move them to temporary or transitional housing for a few weeks, and then to permanent supportive housing. It is supposed to provide comprehensive support so that residents are ready to move in. It’s temporary, not permanent.

Finally, let me say that things are moving in the right direction here. The construction of new housing units and refurbishments is financed and started. New funds have been made available for both Cares Campus and affordable housing. An inpatient psychiatric facility (formerly West Hills) is currently being acquired, which we hope will provide much needed facilities. Dedicated County workers and volunteers come every day to help.

What we still need is the support of this entire community to address and prevent homelessness. All stakeholders — first responders, the county sheriff, Reno and Sparks police, the fire department and REMSA, religious leaders, business owners, social workers, and case managers — need to be heard about how best to coordinate resources and resolve issues, with that they encounter every day. Everyone should visit the Cares campus, especially community leaders. Hours, not minutes.

Lanterns are lit in memory of the people who died homeless during a vigil on February 23, 2022 in Reno, Nevada. Image: Ty O’Neill/This Is Reno

Finally, a few statistics from HUD’s 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report in numbers. Over the past two years, the national homelessness rate has remained virtually unchanged.

  • 582,462 people were left homeless in January 2022 (up 0.3% from 2020).
  • 233,832 people were left homeless and homeless in January 2022.
  • 50,767 families with children were left homeless in 2022.
  • 33,129 veterans were left homeless in 2022 (11% less than in 2020, 55.3% less than in 2010).
  • 127,705 chronically homeless (up 16% from 2020, up 20.4% from 2010).
  • 30,090 unaccompanied youth homeless (down 12% from 2020).

In Washoe County, 96 homeless people died homeless in 2022. In 2021, 57 people died. In 2016, only 19 homeless citizens died.

Of the 96 deaths in Washoe County, 44 were related to drug use, four were due to hypothermia, and two were due to overheating. The rest included deaths due to collisions with cars, trains, suicides, and homicides.

Most of these deaths could have been avoided if people had been accommodated first. If this trend continues, we will eventually solve the problem of the homeless by letting them die on our streets.

There are between 2,000 and 3,000 homeless people in our county, and the number is growing. They are hard to see from the suburbs and upscale neighborhoods, but they are here among us every day.

Homelessness is a mirror of our society. It is a reflection of all of us.

Jim McNamara is a veteran, homeless advocate, and retired commercial airline pilot who has volunteered for decades in his community, including with the Boy Scouts, the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, the Nevada Cares campus, and the Washoe County COVID-19 response.

The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Got something to say? Submit your article or letter to the editor here.

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