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As Washoe, others adopt anti-camping laws, advocates and homeless fear fallout

Advocates describe a “powder keg” moment as ordinances are tightened and the Supreme Court weighs restoring more latitude to local governments on homelessness.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
HousingLocal Government

When 34-year-old Kyle Fall lost his job, he could no longer afford his Bay Area apartment, much less storage space for all his possessions.

“I just spent the last four or five years buying all these things to fill the space that I've been renting,” Fall said. “A lot of my stuff ended up being left on the corner.”

Out of options and disillusioned with renting, Fall packed what he could into his van and began traveling from truck stop to truck stop with his dog. In December 2022, Fall decided he was tired of California and traveled to Northern Nevada. 

Out of gas and money, he soon landed a job as an overnight porter at a Reno gas station, where he still works. Eventually, he bought a recreational vehicle that allowed his large dog room to stretch and walk around.

“People sit there and think homelessness is this or that. It could be a lot of different things,” Fall said. “In my situation, it was me and my dog, starving and struggling just to get enough gas to go to the next truck stop to be struggling and starving again.”

One of the reasons Fall keeps moving is because he doesn’t want to be noticed, especially in light of new ordinances targeting homelessness that add criminal penalties. 

On March 26, the Washoe County Commission became the latest municipality to pass an ordinance making it a misdemeanor to camp or live in a vehicle on county-owned properties or public places. 

The ordinance also prohibits camping within 1,000 feet of the Truckee River, parking oversized vehicles on public property, obstructing uses of public sidewalks or roads, using open flame devices on county or public property and soliciting 15 feet from a road or highway.  

In the aftermath of the ordinance’s adoption, Washoe commissioners have echoed what other local government officials in Nevada and across the country have said about adopting stricter rules around where and how a person can live outdoors.

“It is a tool for law enforcement and service providers to use to move folks out of living situations, like camps, that are detrimental not just to neighborhoods, but also to the people living in the camps,” Commission Chair Alexis Hill, a Democrat, said in an Instagram post after the March 26 vote.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Nevada Cares Campus with Gov. Steve Sisolak and Washoe County elected officials on May 17, 2021 before its opening. Officials are now investing more in development for the Cares Campus and other housing projects. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Southern Nevada cities shared similar sentiments — in October 2023, the cities of Las Vegas and Henderson signed an amicus brief — along with other western cities — to overturn appellate court rulings in Martin v. Boise and Johnson v. Grants Pass, which limit local governments' abilities to displace people experiencing homelessness when there is no space available at nearby shelters.

“The city hopes the U.S. Supreme Court gives clarity and finality — either way — to how cities across the country can or cannot use their police powers to address this issue,” Las Vegas city spokesperson Jace Radke wrote at the time.  

A City of Henderson spokesperson wrote that overturning these cases would allow the city “to be flexible in addressing unhoused issues as they emerge.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for Johnson. A ruling is still pending, but could have major implications for local governments and people experiencing homelessness — especially at a time when wage growth isn’t keeping pace with rising rents and more people lose their housing after pandemic protections continue to expire. 

A member of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance speaks to reporters following a press conference outside the Washoe County administrative building on April 22, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

From 2020 to 2022, the number of people who have experienced homelessness for the first time increased by 30 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Workers must earn twice the federal minimum wage to make enough to consider a two-bedroom apartment affordable, which is 30 percent of a worker’s income, according to HUD’s definition. 

And according to the Nevada Housing Coalition, a person making minimum wage in Nevada would need to work 82 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Ordinance enforcement and development

Hill, a Democrat who faced criticism for voting to pass the measure, said that a person violating the new ordinance has four strikes before they are referred to community court. The commission also plans to revisit the enforcement plan every three months and assess in a year whether it’s been effective in getting people experiencing homelessness into better living conditions. 

Washoe County’s Chief Deputy of Detention Operations Corey Solferino said the new ordinance allows law enforcement to engage with the unhoused population without a “court transaction.” 

“Our goal is not to over-arrest or cite these individuals. It is to push them towards service providers and find the right fit for them,” Solferino said.

Solferino said law enforcement will direct people not only to the Cares Campus, the largest shelter in Northern Nevada, but to faith-based organizations or human trafficking recovery groups if that is the right fit. 

Opponents of the ordinance argue that the county can’t arrest its way out of the homelessness problem. Although Solferino said he agrees “100 percent” and wants more groups involved, he argued that law enforcement does play a key role in any solution. 

“If it's not our job, then whose is it? Because we're the [ones that] always get called,” Solferino said.

Solferino said people violating the new ordinance get two warnings before they are referred to community court on the third. On the fourth warning, law enforcement “may arrest, but don’t have to.” 

The number of warnings reset every 12 months, Solferino said.

Ben Iness, the coalition coordinator for the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance, said he’s concerned that the county’s actions could have unintended ramifications.

“If your tool is a hammer, then you will see everything as a nail,” Iness said. “Their intent isn't criminalization, isn't punitive measures, but this is a last kind of last-ditch effort or only to be used in emergencies. But … intention can sometimes be divorced of outcome.”

But no immediate crackdowns on people living out of their vehicles have come in the weeks since the ordinance passed.

On a recent Friday, Jay Rathmann said two RVs had been parked at his Sparks business, BJ’s Barbeque, for the last two weeks.

Rathmann said he could ask the neighboring business to help move the RVs along if there were any problems, but as long as they weren’t there for too long, he wasn’t going to report it.

Fall said he’s had similar experiences with other businesses in the area. He said as long as he is not in one place for too long and doesn’t make a mess, people don’t approach him. That includes law enforcement.

As of Feb. 14, around the time Sparks City Council clarified a similar ordinance in its municipal code, Fall hadn’t had a single officer approach him about living in his vehicle.

“They got better stuff to do,” Fall said. “I don't think they want to sit over there and purposely take hardworking individuals to jail.”

Members of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance during a press conference outside the Washoe County administrative building coinciding on April 22, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Local response to a national issue

The same day the Supreme Court was discussing Johnson v. Grants Pass, advocates with the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance protested against the county’s camping ordinance.

Iness said the housing issue is “coming to this … powder keg moment” not only in Nevada but nationally. Protests were also held nationwide, including in Washington D.C.

Local governments are taking steps to address lack of affordable housing. At the same meeting commissioners passed the camping ban ordinance, they also approved the development of a 200-unit affordable housing complex. In spite of new projects, the state is still short approximately 83,000 affordable rental homes for “extremely” low income households, according to The National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Elizabeth Walsh, the co-founder of the Reno Sparks Tenants Union, said affordable housing is more complex than just investing in construction. 

“I don't think that development is necessarily the solution,” Walsh said.

She said decreasing rent across all apartments, investing in affordable housing and increasing tenant protections can all improve the rate of homelessness.

Lawmakers attempted to tackle all of these issues during the 2023 legislative session, but several bills — including ones that would have allowed local governments to implement a form of rent control — died in the lawmaking process or were vetoed by the governor. 

Meagan O'Farrell, an activist and member of the Nevada Housing Justice Alliance during a press conference outside the Washoe County administrative building on April 22, 2024. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Meagan O’Farrell, a local advocate, gave a land acknowledgment, or a formal statement that recognizes the Indigenous peoples as the original stewards of the land, at the beginning of the protest and later explained displacing people isn’t a new practice for governments in the United States.

“We have a history of saying, ‘If you do not fit our standards, not only are you not welcome, we will kill you or we will put mechanisms in place to make it so that if you survive, it is a literal miracle,’” O’Farrell said.

When people don’t want rentals

Fall said losing his apartment disillusioned him to the idea of renting. Even if living out of his RV is difficult, if he loses his job tomorrow, Fall still owns his housing. This grants him a level of stability he didn’t have while living in an apartment.

“I haven't just spent the last year and a half of my life wasting my money on this little square box that I don't own that some guy can choose to raise the rent on or do whatever he wants with,” Fall said. “At least with this, every month I invest into something I can sell later on.”

Losing one’s home has been linked to various complications to mental and physical health.

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that after an eviction, people are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress and increased emergency room visits. 

Substance abuse is more prevalent in people who are homeless than in those who are not, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which notes that substance abuse is typically an accessible way to cope, rather than the cause of homelessness. 

An unhoused person on West Fourth Street in Reno on Feb. 21, 2022. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada (ACLU) told The Nevada Independent the organization is exploring options to push back on the ordinance.

“I wouldn't say a legal challenge is off the table yet,” said Tia Smith, policy counsel with the ACLU of Nevada. “The county should be focusing on … proven solutions, instead of using an effective Band-Aid to try to push people around without providing the support that they need.”

As for the ordinance, Fall wants politicians to understand the complexity of homelessness before they make laws restricting how people survive without traditional housing.

“It's just complicated,” Fall said. “ A cop shouldn't be responding to a drug addict, you know? But our system has failed.”

David Calvert contributed to this story.


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