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A line forms outside the Reno Events Center for the Reno Homeless Project Connect on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 (Tabitha Mueller/The Nevada Independent)

As the end of summer approaches — ushering in falling leaves and winter winds — more than 150 homeless individuals who have been sleeping on mattresses at the temporary shelter in the Downtown Reno Events Center are in limbo, caught between an effort to send them away from the convention center and a lawsuit seeking to block them from a campground-style alternative shelter.  

Operators of the Reno Events Center initially said they needed to shut down the temporary homeless shelter that has been operating there since early in the pandemic by August 3, citing a casino company’s reservation to use the center for an event on Sunday. 

But plans to move the guests into a new campground-style shelter on Wednesday ceased when Scott Peterson, the owner of Wells RV and Boat storage, filed a lawsuit against the city, and a District Court judge issued a restraining order calling for all work on the new temporary shelter to stop, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported. A hearing on the matter is set for Tuesday.

Peterson, whose business borders the new site, alleges that the city failed to properly notify adjacent property owners, did not follow zoning laws and illegally fast-tracked construction of the shelter. He asserted that the shelter will irrevocably damage his business.

The conflict is the latest in the region’s long struggle to address homelessness, which has included regular and controversial cleanups of encampments. It also comes as COVID-19 — the reason leaders sought a larger shelter space in the first place — shows few signs of abating.

Decisionmakers say they are balancing the need to help vulnerable people and questions about how many resources they can and should put toward the issue.

“I think as a community, it's our duty to step forward and make sure that they are taken care of long term. I think we obviously want to serve the most people for the least amount of money, especially as stewards of the taxpayer dollar,” said Kate Thomas, the assistant Washoe County manager. “This is uncharted territory. We haven't gone through anything like this before. So it's hard to gauge what the right cost is for something of this scale."

Timeline

Officials set up the shelter at the Reno Events Center in March when COVID-19 struck Nevada and shelter staff realized that the usually at or over capacity shelters were more conducive to spreading the virus than halting it, said Neoma Jardon, a Reno councilwoman and one of the two representatives for Reno on Washoe County’s Community Homelessness Advisory Board (CHAB). The board was created in 2011 to address homelessness after responsibility for the issue ping-ponged for years between the county, Reno and Sparks.

“We acted within 10 days of the shutdown or somewhere near there,” Jardon said. “It was still kind of cold. We didn't want to put people out, but we wanted to be able to better socially distance those individuals, particularly as they slept at night, and still give them some services.”

Clients are allowed to stay in the shelter from the evening until the next morning. They receive water bottles and sleep in spaced-out beds across the air-conditioned convention center, which also has access to restrooms, handwashing stations and showers.

Washoe County, Reno and Sparks agreed to split the costs of the temporary shelter, paying $977,274 (as of July 28) for the project with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the CARES Act. Though officials initially had planned to close the shelter by the end of June so they could reopen the Reno Events Center for commercial use, increases in coronavirus cases and a need for continued social distancing kept the temporary shelter open.

Even as the pandemic and government restrictions on events with more than 50 people carry on indefinitely, there’s been pressure to wind down the shelter to allow for increased tourism and events that would boost the local economy. Representatives from Washoe County, Sparks and Reno decided during a July 20 meeting of the homelessness advisory board to vacate the Reno Events Center by Aug. 3.

The shelter’s planned closure was prompted by a reservation of the venue for Aug. 9 for an unspecified “appreciation event” hosted by The Row, a resort and casino group that includes the Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus casinos in Downtown Reno. A representative of The Row confirmed this week that the event was postponed until the end of the month but the Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) did not yet have a date on the books for when the event might be rescheduled.

Reno Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus opposed the original decision to shut down the shelter at the Reno Events Center during a City Council meeting on July 22. She said she'd prefer to keep the shelter as an overflow site for the Community Assistance Center (CAC) shelter instead of putting people outside in the temporary campgrounds, which she said had logistical issues such as paying for spring-up tents and getting required permissions.

"I am questioning the idea that we need to get out of there, that we're not in the driver's seat of our own facility," she said about the Events Center, adding that she couldn't find any advertising for The Row's scheduled event. "I just don't understand going from one temporary facility to another temporary facility that we have to build all new."

Officials in Northern Nevada were set to replace the Event Center’s 370-bed capacity with an outdoor campground-style shelter, additional space at the CAC shelter and the recently completed Our Place center, a shelter for women, children and families with wraparound services. 

City attorneys are preparing for the legal battle over the planned site for the campground-style shelter, but no announcement has been made about where the city will move people staying at the Reno Events Center if the judge’s restraining order against pursuing the campground remains in place following the court hearing this week. In the meantime, homeless individuals will remain in the facility until at least Aug. 11.

"We are complying with the judge’s ruling to halt operations at the temporary shelter," a city spokesperson said in an email. "We believe the need is strong for our emergency plan. Any other option would potentially force more than 150 people to leave safe shelter."

Organizers weigh costs and benefits

While the final bill is not in, decision makers have been weighing whether the shelter has been an efficient investment.

In the 130 days the shelter was open from March 1 to July 28, the regional response effort cost an average of $7,517 per day. The temporary shelter, run by the nonprofit Volunteers of America Northern California and Northern Nevada (VOA), had a capacity of 370 beds — 21 percent of the beds necessary to house the estimated 1,256 unsheltered people in Washoe County on any given night, according to data from 2019

With an average bed occupancy of about 69 percent for each night the shelter was open, some have wondered whether the money could have been better allocated, but officials and organizers said that the temporary shelter was the best solution given the immediacy of the need.

“Well, it is a lot of money dispensed … when governments are hurting, but at the same time, these are people. They're homeless, but they're still people and they still need to be protected,” Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler said. “The cost of putting 50 to 70 homeless people in the hospital on ventilators would be infinitely higher.”

The median cost of treatment for patients with a respiratory system diagnosis was $88,000 for those on a ventilator for 96 hours or more and $34,000 for less than 96 hours, according to an analysis of COVID-19 treatment costs.

Twenty-nine people experiencing homelessness in Washoe County have been reported to have contracted COVID-19, according to records from the Washoe County Health District, but district officials noted the number could be higher because following up with and tracking cases in the homeless population can be difficult. Organizers said not having the space to distance people properly in shelters would have significantly worsened the situation and potentially caused increases in numbers of cases.

Of the 29 cases, 20 were identified at the Reno Events Center shelter, according to the health district.

Costs of not providing shelter or support to people experiencing homelessness are more expensive in the long run, Sparks Councilman Kristopher Dahir added, referencing the 2006 New Yorker article Million Dollar Murray, a story about a homeless man in Reno whose time in “non-solutions,” such as jails or hospitals, cost taxpayers $1 million over the span of 10 years. Dahir serves on CHAB as well and said that emergency FEMA and CARES Act funds helped alleviate some of the burdens on local taxpayers.

An average of 260 people stayed at the shelter each night, placing the cost per night per person around $28, according to an analysis of records from Sparks, Reno and Washoe County — much lower than the $3,796 Las Vegas spent per patient each night at the recently closed Isolation and Quarantine Complex for unsheltered populations exposed to COVID-19.

The costs detailed in invoices and budgets provided to The Nevada Independent of $977,274 do not include the amount the city paid to the VOA for maintaining or running the temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center. 

Arlo Stockham, Reno’s acting assistant city manager, noted that although he had a bit of a “sticker shock” when he first looked at the costs surrounding the temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center, it was the least expensive alternative to meeting the needs of the homeless population. The cost was two to three times cheaper than renting out hotel rooms, which was San Francisco’s solution to the need for increased distancing, Stockham pointed out.

“It's kind of hard to find a place to stay for that kind of money, no matter who you are,” Stockham said. “And then you layer on top all the services. It's a challenging population. It's not like you can, just open up a building and everything's gonna be fine.”

The decision comes down to short-term and long-term spending, Thomas said. In the short term, money should not be a factor in ensuring someone’s safety. In the long term, however, money needs to be spent wisely and is a balancing act.

Pandemic heightens housing insecurity

Government leaders worry about the effect the pandemic might have on a community lacking affordable housing and struggling with a devastated local economy.

Berkbigler and Dahir discussed how CHAB is leading a cross-regional effort called Built for Zero to develop ways to find a permanent solution for homelessness by addressing the more deeply rooted issues causing homelessness rather than just using  band-aid solutions such as providing food and shelter.

Washoe County has an affordable housing trust fund that the county has never financed. To help families struggling with making rent payments and ease a predicted influx of eviction cases as the state phases out an eviction moratorium, Berkbigler said commissioners will vote to place funding from the CARES Act into the fund to help some of the most vulnerable renters.

She added that the county also set up trailers for people by the river in Southeast Sparks to stay in if they had nowhere to quarantine during the pandemic, but so far the trailers have not been used. 

Some of the underlying issues causing homelessness are especially visible during the pandemic, Dahir said and he hopes that through CHAB and a regional response he and other leaders can help families navigating an uncertain future.

“My biggest focus is not just on the homeless, but I would call them the almost homeless, the most vulnerable,” he said. “There are many people in their homes right now, right now that can't pay rent, especially because of COVID, but they were there before COVID.”

More permanent interventions are on the horizon

As officials navigate the immediate needs of unsheltered populations, they are also developing longer-term solutions for addressing homelessness in the region.

After the closure of the temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center, officials plan to split men experiencing homelessness between two shelters. City officials in coordination with the VOA will re-open the CAC on Record Street, which has a capacity to shelter 135 people and an overflow capacity of 40 people. Pending court decisions, officials hope to set up a temporary campground for about 165 people at the East Fourth Street meals site owned by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA).

Operating costs for the campground-style shelter would be similar to the shelter at the Reno Events Center, with reduced spending through ASM Global and different shower facilities, but there will be an additional $65,000 per month cost to cover expanded services, including, daytime facilities with shade structures and 24-hour armed security, according to figures Stockham gave during a presentation to CHAB on Monday.

The tents on the campsite, which is intended for night-use only, will be ventilated but will not have air conditioning.

The city will also open up Governor's Bowl Park, an unused baseball field in Reno, as a regular park where people wanting some shade can come and receive meals as well as other services. The new setup, including the tents at the TMWA site, will have meal delivery and day-use areas with shade — amenities the sites presently lack, Stockham said.

The Events Center does not have a daytime use area, so people seeking respite from the summer heat hang out in parks, doorways downtown, and shaded areas along the river, Stockham added, explaining that his offices regularly field complaints from the community about unsheltered populations congregating in the area. 

"We're hopeful that with sheltered, sleeping areas, meal provision, and the day use areas altogether that it'll be a better arrangement," he said.

Map of Interim Shelter sites from a presentation City of Reno Community Development Director and Acting Assistant City Manager Arlo Stockham gave about COVID-19 Emergency Homeless Shelter Plans to the CHAB on Monday, July 20, 2020.

Officials hope to find a ‘more suitable’ long term shelter site

Part of the reason the CAC is able to reopen and officials such as Stockham feel confident that they can shelter everyone safely is that the Washoe County Human Services Agency opened the doors of Our Place in June, a new shelter with case management services located in Sparks for women, children and families experiencing homelessness. The $20 million project at the campus of the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services has been in development for two years and happens to coincide with the need to transfer individuals from temporary locations, Thomas said.

“When we talk about temporary solutions, we're all driving towards a more longer term solution that helps actually rectify the situation for folks. Versus like I said, continually applying kind of short-term solutions,” she said. “Obviously people have needs in the short term, but really what we want to get to is the heart of why someone is in a situation they are, help give them the resources to achieve permanent permanency and housing.”

Families moved from the events center to the Our Place campus in June. The women currently at an overflow shelter are expected to move in Aug. 15.

Stockham anticipates the interim shelter on Fourth Street will operate for approximately four months, allowing two months to find a more permanent shelter and two months to assemble and construct the shelter before winter comes. If the permanent shelter is not ready by the end of November, officials can extend the lease but will need to make additional improvements, most notably, a heating system.

The location for the permanent site is "sensitive," Stockham said and would require about 8 or 9 acres and ideally be close to local services and resources for clients. The site would also have to factor in Reno regulations that determine where homeless facilities can go.

Governor's Bowl Park is an option, Stockham said, but officials are scouting other locations as well.

"I'm not under any illusion COVID's gonna go away. This fourth street site is really not ideal for a long term shelter. It's pretty small," Stockham said in a CHAB meeting on Monday. "Our hope and plan is to have a more suitable longer term site identified in a couple months and then have a couple months to develop that site and improve it."

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