Washoe County leaders vote to initiate ordinance changes that could penalize unauthorized camping

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) – In a close vote, Washoe County Commissioners approved initiating the drafting of an ordinance that will increase penalties for those camping in public areas.

The piece of legislation proposes to ban “sleeping or making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings or making any fire, or using any tents or shelter or structure or vehicle for sleeping, or doing any digging or earth breaking, or carrying on cooking activities” with the intent to create living accommodations.

“For those people, that’s a very small portion, that doesn’t want to accept some help from our Hopes Team or other nonprofits that we bring to bear,” said Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam during a meeting Tuesday. “This allows us so that we don’t have the Sun Valley issue or the East Sparks issue, where human waste and garbage has collected to where now it’s hazardous to not only those living there but to the surrounding community.”

Balaam said the county is the last of the local government agencies to not have a camping ordinance.

The majority of public commenters strongly spoke against the measure, saying it would lead to further criminalizing poverty in the area.

“Maybe I should just roll over and die? No,” said Ladell Wright, who is currently unhoused.

“Why are cops the people that are responding to this?”, said Nicole Anagapesis. “Why would the sheriff be responding to this? There are people…that are subject matter experts on this, who understand the situation, really complex situation.”

According to the draft, people who violate the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail and/or a $500 dollar fine.

“Let’s assume you arrest someone, does that go on their permanent record?” asked Washoe County Commissioner Chair Vaughn Hartung.

“It would,” answered Sheriff Balaam.

“Okay, for being homeless? That’s the crime?” said Hartung. Balaam responded with a nod.

Despite this language, the sheriff said incarceration is not the goal and they will still try and get people into proper, safe shelters.

Commissioners had a lot of questions and tried to put it to later but after being told by legal that wouldn’t be possible, the board voted 3-2 to move forward with initiating proceedings to amend Washoe County Code Chapter 50 but work with community stakeholders on the draft.

Commissioners Jeanne Herman and Alexis Hill voted against the measure.

In 90 days, the ordinance will come back to the board for its first reading. Due to legal precedent, if the Cares Campus is full citing or jailing people who are living outside would be illegal.

On December 13, the Nevada Cares Campus had a total of 23 available beds.

You can find a link to the code on agenda item #19.

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