If it is true that the strength of a society should be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members, it is becoming increasingly clear that Nevada is shamefully weak.
On Oct. 26, a homeless encampment set up under the Wells Bridge near Sixth Street was shut down by the Reno Police Department, and its residents were evicted. Before that, Nevada settled a $400,000 lawsuit with San Francisco over the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital’s state-sanctioned practice of busing its patients to other cities, without enough medication or any resources waiting for them once they stepped off the Greyhound.
These instances paint a grim picture of how our state and city treat the most helpless among us, favoring image and convenience over respect for humanity.
On the day the homeless encampment was evicted, the local nonprofit group Food Not Bombs Reno arrived to “provide support and protection” to the homeless, according to a post by the group on its Facebook page. What they encountered while observing the evacuation is disturbing to say the least.
They witnessed “many police officers … degrading [a mentally-ill woman] and telling her she needed to leave by 7 [a.m.] with the rest of the encampment. We saw three officers gang up on her, making fun of her, humiliating her, which in turn made her cry hysterically.”
These officers expressed no remorse for their actions, according to FNB, and one stated that he did not care where the evicted residents went, and added “I can suggest is that you go somewhere we can’t see you. Like, you know, out of sight and out of mind.”
That statement acutely sums up the city’s attitude toward the homeless population: They need to stay out of sight and out of mind.
This attitude has been echoed by prominent residents — residents who could use their influence to lobby for legislative action that helps relieve homelessness, but instead favor further marginalizing the homeless population for the sake of the city’s image.
In an Oct. 2 interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, CEO of the Eldorado Casino, Cindy Carano, expressed a desire to address the problem of homelessness downtown, but not to provide better housing for those who spend their lives on the city sidewalks.
“With all these new people coming to town (for Tesla and Switch), it’s a great opportunity to turn these motels into apartments and upgrade them in order to create a better atmosphere,” Carano said. “ … it’s an opportunity for investment. Once you make it beautiful, the lower end will move out or away.”
Much like Rawson-Neal’s solution to alleviating the burden of too many patients was to ship them away to become someone else’s problem, Carano’s solution to revitalizing downtown is simply for “the lower end” to move away. Out of sight, out of mind.
If the city wants to improve its image, it should do so not by shoving those it deems undesirable by the wayside, but by focusing on providing opportunities to those without stable housing. The problem of homelessness will not solve itself, and, as data has shown, it is projected to get worse if left unaddressed.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness found in its 2015 report “The State of Homelessness in America” that between 2013 and 2014, Nevada experienced a 25 percent increase in overall homelessness, with 10.56 in the state in 2014. By the state’s own admission, these numbers are likely to keep increasing. The Nevada Interagency Council on Homelessness states in the draft of its 2015 Strategic Plan that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless projections for the state “anticipate that the number of chronically homeless individuals will increase by over 40 percent from 2013 to 2016.”
These startling figures should serve as a wake-up call for every Nevadan. Homelessness is undoubtedly a problem, and solving it will require addressing its causes, not merely attempting to hide its symptoms.
The City of Reno is taking steps toward addressing homelessness, but only time will tell if they will be enough to create a real impact. Last month, the city unveiled Reno Works, a pilot program funded with $110,000 of the city’s $10.9 million budget surplus The program that will hire 20 homeless individuals living in a shelter to work cleaning the Truckee River and provide them with job training and resources throughout the course of the 18-week program.
While this is a start, we must question if it is enough to really make a difference for the city’s overall homeless population. What of the chronically homeless who do not live in shelters? What of the hundreds of others who do live in shelters but were not among the 20 chosen to participate? And, most importantly, what will become of the program’s participants after the program ends? According to an article in the RGJ, program officials “hope the 20 participants can use the real-life work experience to find a full-time job.” For those facing life on the streets, hope just isn’t enough.
The City of Reno and the Nevada as a state must realize that problem of homelessness lies in the social and economic factors that force people into temporary shelters and onto the streets, not in the existence of homeless people. If the city truly wants to improve its image, it will start by putting an end to the dehumanization of the homeless that is a far greater shame than any tent city will ever be.
The Nevada Sagebrush news desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.