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Washoe County considering fines for illegal camping, raising fears for homeless

Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
Local GovernmentNorthern Nevada
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Washoe County commissioners took first steps this week toward criminalizing unauthorized camping — a move that would align the law in unincorporated areas with policies in Reno and Sparks, but that has been criticized as being overly harsh to homeless people.

Commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to start the process of amending the county code to criminalize anyone participating in “unauthorized camping and storage of personal property which may pose a risk of significant harm to any person, or public area” within the unincorporated areas of Washoe County. Within the next 90 days, the district attorney’s office will bring a draft to the commission.

Over the course of two hours of public comment, Washoe County residents criticized the proposed amendment, saying it criminalized homelessness and poverty during a time when shelters are at capacity and nighttime temperatures drop into the teens. Several people, including some commissioners, questioned the purpose of imposing a $500 fine on someone who is living outdoors and creating or adding to their criminal record, possibly making finding a job even harder.

“It is uncharacteristically regressive and counterproductive, and raises some legal questions,” Lilith Baran with the ACLU of Nevada said at Tuesday’s public comment. 

Baran referenced court cases such as Martin v. Boise, Johnson v. City of Grants Pass and Lavan v. Los Angeles that found similar ordinances to be unconstitutional — including laws against activities such as camping outside when no other shelter is available, barring unhoused people from public spaces and seizing property from unhoused people. 

She also wants to change the way the conversation is framed.

“It's not camping … camping is a fun recreational activity. These people are trying to stay alive out of the harm of elements is what they're doing. So we would like to say engaging in life-sustaining activities, because that's what they're doing,” Baran said in a phone interview Friday with The Nevada Independent.  

Others in public comment argued that outdoor camping can lead to fire hazards, and a build-up of human waste, trash and used drug paraphernalia, which can be dangerous to the unhoused and the community as a whole. 

Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam used an example of an encampment in Sun Valley that the sheriff’s office recently cleared out — the cleanup generated four dumpsters’ worth of waste.

Baran, along with others in public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, questioned why law enforcement officials were responsible for finding people housing and services.

“I was hearing a lot of the people on either side complaining about waste and needles and feces, and there are three wonderful solutions for those, and they are trash cans and toilets and safe needle boxes,” Baran said. “The solution to trash on the ground is always a trash can. It's never a ticket.”

Balaam said in a phone interview with The Nevada Independent on Wednesday that when the shelters are full, people camping in public areas would not be penalized, per the Martin v. Boise ruling. 

The $500 fine and jail time are worst-case scenarios when someone is not responsive to warnings and is causing a danger to themselves or the community, he said. Balaam added that the sheriff’s office often tries to assist people with obtaining services or resources before things get to that point, sometimes working with people for as long as six months. 

“We don't want them sitting in our jail for six months just because they're homeless,” Balaam said. 

The ordinance is part of an effort by the Community Homelessness Advisory Board to establish cohesive laws throughout the Washoe County, City of Reno and City of Sparks municipal codes.

“That's a complaint we hear from anybody trying to access services, or when they deal with law enforcement or the government, is ‘we don't know where to go because everywhere we go we get different answers,’” Balaam said.

Reno and Sparks already have laws against camping in public places. Though Washoe County encompasses the two cities, Reno and Sparks are responsible for the penalties issued within their city limits and Washoe County would be responsible for unincorporated areas, including parts of Hidden Valley, Sun Valley, Verdi, Gerlach, Stead and Cold Springs.

“We are not trying to make or criminalize homelessness,” Balaam said. “What we're trying to do is for that very, very small portion of the entire region and community … they've created an environment that's dangerous for themselves or others.” 

Reno has already faced backlash for the results of similar ordinances the council passed in 2019. 

Local governments encourage unsheltered people to go to the Cares Campus, the largest shelter in the region. Though the county says it is constantly working on the quality of the campus, not everyone feels safe at the county-owned facility. Balaam said his team sometimes works to get people into alternative shelters such as Our Place or simply tries to connect them with community resources.

"Safety is the team’s No. 1 priority and we have worked to bring services to the campus through the addition of 23 case managers, onsite security and medical services available seven days a week,” said Washoe County Special Projects Manager Dana Searcy about the Cares Campus.

“We have also brought on six behavioral health counselors and community partners to address the trauma and mental health challenges that people experiencing homeless endure regularly." 

Searcy noted that the facility was built in 2021 to increase shelter capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic so people could adequately social distance, and said the Cares Campus is still a developing project. They are also developing a shelter for elderly people and those with disabilities as well as expanding their women’s shelter.

However safe the shelter may be, Baran told The Nevada Independent in a phone interview on Friday that putting that over 700 people in one facility doesn’t address that people each have individual needs. 

She also said the money local jurisdictions put into the Cares Campus would have been better spent creating homes for the unhoused and given to smaller family shelters. Baran also said the sheriff should have reached out to the ACLU as one of the major stakeholders in this ordinance.

“It’s not well researched. That's not … people attacking law enforcement, that's people attacking a policy that's harmful and could potentially be deadly,” Baran said. “There's many people who are [experts] in their area. But they should reach out.”

Baran said she did not think the county had reached out to the ACLU for guidance on the possible change to the code yet, but she planned to reach out to County Manager Eric Brown to discuss the plans of the ordinance moving forward.

Though moving forward to the drafting process, the proposed amendments are still in their early stages and are likely to change before being adopted. 

“Keep in mind, yesterday was just permission to open the codebook, it was not to adopt a code,” Hill told The Nevada Independent on Wednesday. “We still have two more public hearings that will be required for that so we'll see what they bring in.”

Hill was one of two commissioners — along with Jeanne Herman — who voted against moving forward with the amendments. 

“I had some serious concerns,” Hill said. “We need to vet this more. We need to work with our local community a bit more to see if law enforcement is really the answer to enforcing camping on our public property, or if we need to look at other ways to get folks the services that they need.”

Updated 12/16/2022 at 5:27 p.m. to include info from a phone interview with Lily Baran.

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