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The Nevada Independent

Sleeping in vehicles, on sidewalks a misdemeanor in Sparks

City council brings back a 2023 ordinance to clarify that the offense should be considered a criminal matter, not a civil infraction.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
HousingLocal Government
City of Sparks signage

Sleeping on a sidewalk or in a vehicle on public property is now a criminal misdemeanor in Sparks after the city council voted unanimously Monday to approve an ordinance change. 

The ordinance, initially passed in August 2023 without much public outcry, was brought back to council members after city staff said the law needed more teeth to respond to people who resist social services.

However, when a new law took effect in 2023 making certain traffic citations civil infractions, the lack of clarity in Sparks municipal code brought the ordinance change back to the council’s consideration. The move drew opposition from members of the Reno Sparks Tenants Union, Laundry to the People, Faith in Action Nevada and several other organizations, who voiced their concerns at Monday’s council meeting. 

“The people who are going to be affected by this … ordinance do not have any other options,” said Rosie Zuckerman with Laundry to the People, a mutual aid group that offers free laundry services to the unhoused population. “They are people who have been laid off, suffered a medical expense, fled an abusive situation, received no-cause evictions, the list of unfortunate circumstances is endless.”

Athar Haseebullah, with the ACLU of Nevada, said in a tweet that the ACLU had submitted a letter of opposition “to this insane rule and will explore other options if it’s passed.” 

“Criminalizing poverty, including making it a crime to sleep in a car when temperatures outside are freezing and shelter space is inadequate, is inhumane and egregious,” he said.

The clarification to the city code to criminalize homelessness passed during a time when rents are outpacing average wage growth across the state.

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.

Maurice Page, the executive director of the Nevada Housing Coalition, said during an unrelated presentation at the same meeting that more than 186,000 households in Washoe County are cost-burdened. This means they are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Among those households, more than 9,000 are severely cost-burdened, meaning they are making less than 30 percent of the area’s median income. 

The meeting was held just hours before a vigil was scheduled to be held to honor the 135 unhoused people who died in Washoe County during 2023. 

The Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) Team, a department within the Sparks City Police Department, brought the ordinance changes to the city council last summer as “a tool of last resort, but a tool that law enforcement said that they needed,” City Attorney Wes Duncan said.

“We're not talking about the one-time person that might be sleeping in their car,” Duncan said during Monday’s meeting. “We're talking about the folks who have a resistance to services. That is now impacting public health and public safety.”

Sparks Police Chief Chris Crawforth said the HOPE Team, on average, makes 13 contacts with someone experiencing homelessness before a citation or arrest is made. 

“We are truly at a point now where we have folks that just absolutely deny and refuse services,” he said. 

Crawforth noted public health concerns are being raised because of fires and human waste dumped in the Truckee River and hypodermic needles in public parks.

Though the city council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance, Councilwoman Dian VanderWell encouraged city officials to meet with landlords and property managers to address housing issues in the area. After the meeting, she noted that if a person is evicted from their apartment, it can be used against the renter when they try to find another place to live by either not getting approved to rent again or being charged a higher rent.

“I understand its risk [for landlords]. I have a background in real estate and finance,” VanderWell said. “At the same time, we need to look at these [people] as if this [is] a point in time, not that it's something that they habitually do. And I think people are being punished for just some life choice or something that has happened in their life that they had no control over.”

Still, she voted to pass the ordinance to address people who are service-resistant. 

Councilman Kristopher Dahir, who is part of the Community Homelessness Advisory Board that has not met since last fall, said that he supported the ordinance to “help guide people to the best that they can be.” But he said the whole community needed to be part of the solution.

“Government will never be the answer for homelessness. Period. And I'll tell you, for me, it's groups like you heard from today. It's our churches. It's our individuals who care. And those are the ones that will make a difference,” he said.


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