Washoe County’s Board of County Commissioners next week will consider whether to initiate county code amendments to ban non-recreational camping in public areas.
The request comes via the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office “to update governance around unauthorized camping and/or storage of personal property which may pose a risk of significant harm to any person or public area.”
A county staff report notes that the county’s strategic objective affected by the agenda item is “vulnerable populations,” indicating an effort to prevent camping by people living otherwise homeless.
The proposed ordinance changes would ban sleeping or setting up bedding, storing personal belongings, making a fire or cooking, sleeping in cars or other vehicles, using tents or shelters or doing any digging or “earth breaking” with the intent to create living accommodations.
If approved as proposed, people who violate the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail, up to a $500 fine or both.
ACLU Nevada, in a 2020 presentation on homelessness to the Reno Human Rights Commission, called ordinances prohibiting camping as criminalizing homelessness and “appear generally applicable [to all citizens in] a municipality, but in practice are enforced as part of a custom and practice of driving homeless people from public spaces.”
West Juhl, the communications and campaigns director for ACLU Nevada said criminalizing and imposing burdensome fines on people struggling with poverty is never the answer.
“We’ll be interested to analyze an actual ordinance, but we’re always suspicious, in a constitutional sense, of camping bans and laws designed to specifically target unsheltered and houseless people,” they said. “These Nevadans need actual help such as permanent supportive housing, not $500 fines and jail sentences.”
The City of Reno has several ordinances that ACLU officials say criminalize homelessness, including bans on camping, sitting or lying in doorways or sidewalks, camping on public property in the Truckee River corridor and being in parks after hours.
Both Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks over the past several years have worked to reduce the number of people camping in the community.
Last November the WCSO applauded the cleanup of several tunnels under Veterans Parkway where people had been living and storing their belongings. They noted that those living in the tunnels had received housing assistance from the MOST team.
The county now operates Nevada Cares Campus, the 764-bed shelter near downtown Reno. As of Dec. 7, only 12 beds were available – six in the emergency shelter and six in the safe camp. Another six beds for women were available at the Our Place shelter for women and children.
The Board of County Commissioners meets Tuesday, Dec. 13 at 10 a.m. in commission chambers at 1001 E. Ninth Street.
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.