the nevada independent logo
The Reno Sign as seen on Wednesday, Jan., 30, 2019 in Reno, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

When I first moved to western Washington in 2001, Seattle was a beautiful and vibrant city.  It was surprisingly clean, and it felt safe to go downtown to bar hop, play tourist, or have a nice meal pretty much any time of the day or night.  

Like all cities, Seattle had issues with homelessness, but panhandlers kept things respectful, tents were nowhere to be seen, and one generally had a sense of order.  Just two years before, the WTO riots had erupted in the city.  The subsequent law enforcement crackdown did wonders for neighborhood businesses large and small, and of course for all the people who worked at and patronized those companies.  

Alas, when things are going well, it’s amazing how quickly some people forget what it took to get to “going well” in the first place.  A few years later, increasingly hard-line leftist local politicians, all in the name of “tolerance” and “compassion,” started tolerating a bit too much.  Laws against vagrancy and panhandling were not enforced, because who are we to judge those “lifestyle choices”? Graffiti wasn’t cleaned up, because it was racist to stifle the expressions of the dispossessed.  Marijuana was unofficially decriminalized.  

The results were increasingly aggressive and sometimes violent panhandlers.  At the University of Washington’s law school library, feral teenagers turned all of the public computers into “free” video game/porn arcades, stealing laptops, valuables, and (if there was a student group event, as there often was) beer – unafraid of consequences because the law librarians just wrung their hands about the kids’ First Amendment rights to masturbate at the work stations (I wish I were kidding). 

Outside the King County courthouse, drugs were used and sold with astonishing openness, and it was not just marijuana. Tents started showing up more and more. Crime rates started to jump, and crime began spreading to the suburbs. Downtown hardly felt safe in the daylight, even for this military vet with years of martial arts training. By 2007, a few months after a clerk at the 7-11 next door to our condo was murdered for not selling beer to a drug addict, my wife and I were happy to see the city in our rear view mirrors.

We’ve been back a few times, and things have not improved.  Last year, we took our kids to visit some friends over spring break, and I didn’t feel particularly safe even in broad daylight (well, drizzle-light – it is Seattle).  Homeless encampments were everywhere, and we literally had to pick our way through one just to get to Pike’s Market. Evidence of drug use in those areas was unavoidable.  The smell was terrible. I had to yell at my son for trying to be a good Samaritan and pick up garbage, because I was afraid it might be a used needle or other bit of paraphernalia.  I was embarrassed for what should be a jewel of a city in one of America’s most gorgeous slices of real estate.  

Seattle continues to deteriorate.  Police morale is abysmal, which is bad news for public safety.  Violent crime is up.  Homelessness and drug addiction are becoming normalized there, to the detriment of both regular taxpaying citizens and their families, and the mentally ill, the addicted, and the impoverished.

There is nothing compassionate about any of this, for anyone.

***

Having experienced – and escaped – that type of urban decline, I read with great concern the news that here in Reno, the City Council didn’t even want to talk about City Attorney Karl Hall’s plan to weigh in on a federal lawsuit regarding the ability of cities to ban downtown “camping” in public spaces.  

Reno is increasingly coming to see itself as an artsy, hipster oasis in the desert, which is great.  It beats the old stereotype of low-rent hotels for C-List lounge acts and soon-to-be divorcees (although as our population begins to swell, part of me isn’t so eager for that reputation among potential transplants to disappear too completely).  But we need to look at cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle as cautionary tales rather than blueprints.  We can be artsy and vibrant and diverse and fun without also being crime-infested and dangerous.  

Allowing tent cities to grow in our public spaces is unacceptable.  There is nothing compassionate or humane about allowing what are essentially refugee camps in public parks.  Such places are magnets for disease and crime, and the homeless themselves become the most frequent victims in that environment.  

Chronic homelessness is not an “affordable housing” issue.  It’s a mental health issue. It’s an addiction issue. It’s usually both combined.  (The non-mentally ill and non-addicts who can’t afford their rent move to smaller places or commute further or move to cities with lower costs of living – they don’t live in tents indefinitely.) 

Such people have suffered mightily in their lives, and often struggle with demons beyond their ability to control alone.  I have both defended and prosecuted thousands of them over the years in court. They deserve their dignity and humanity, as well as our compassion and yes, even tax-payer funded support when it will help them.  We should authorize and build more shelters, and subsidize more in-patient mental health and drug addiction facilities for both Reno and the surrounding rural communities. 

But part of treating people with humanity is acknowledging their own agency, which means holding adults accountable for their choices and behavior.  You can and should have compassion for the drug addict who steals to fuel her addiction, and still arrest her for stealing – indeed, it may wind up saving her life.  It is OK to say, “We’ll pay for your rehab, but if you don’t stick it out, there will be consequences which may involve separating you from the rest of society for a while – you’re a danger to the rest of us when you’re using.” 

Tolerating, normalizing, and even subsidizing this wretched lifestyle by rolling back or ignoring vagrancy laws will not help anyone.  Giving over the public square to nylon huts without sanitation or water is as cruel a “solution” as you could ever devise, sentencing these poor souls to post-apocalyptic squalor.  And it’s perfectly fair to consider the rest of us who a) also deserve to use our public spaces, and b) actually have contributed economically to their existence and maintenance.  

***

Good governance is always about striking the right balance between liberty and security – between chaos and order.  Good intentions and big hearts are not enough – city leaders must also be clear-eyed about the long term consequences of tolerating the intolerable.  

While there is an undeniable need for more publicly funded mental health and addiction services, Karl Hall is also right to advocate for a hard line stance on public vagrancy now.   If the City Council wants to demonstrate true compassion and empathy for every Reno citizen, both lines of attack against this increasing problem must be pursued.  

Otherwise, the folks we want to help will only slide further into their diseases, suffering and dying while millions of dollars are wasted “housing” people and dealing with increasing crime while ignoring the root causes of their plight.  Meanwhile, our best people will start leaving, perhaps coming back periodically to shake their heads at the deterioration of their once beautiful jewel at the foot of the Sierras, and weep for what could have been.  

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007.  He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016.  By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno.  Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

IndyFest 2020
Sat., Oct. 3rdLearn more
Comment Policy (updated 10/4/19): Please keep your comments civil. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, use an excess of profanity, make verifiably false statements or are otherwise nasty.
correct us
ideas & story tips