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Nevada bans camping in public spaces in response to its homelessness crisis

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Several states are considering bans on camping in public places. It's a response to public outcry over unhoused people living in spaces like parks or on sidewalks. Commissioners in Nevada's second largest county, which includes Reno, just approved such a ban. Opponents say the measure will simply victimize people already in crisis. Bert Johnson of member station KUNR has the story.

BERT JOHNSON, BYLINE: Washoe County Sheriff's Deputy Craig Turner and his partner are visiting a sprawling encampment on the banks of the Truckee River. It includes around two dozen tents scattered among the sagebrush. Unhoused people who live out here call it the end of the world.

CRAIG TURNER: Sheriff's office, HOPE team.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Yeah.

TURNER: Hello?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Hello.

TURNER: Who's inside?

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Yeah, just one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

TURNER: It's Deputy Turner.

JOHNSON: Turner's with the sheriff's office homeless outreach proactive engagement, or HOPE, team. They're tasked with helping people get off the streets. Turner says sometimes, they feel like social workers with guns. Today, Turner's introducing himself to a man he hasn't met before who stays inside his tent while they talk.

TURNER: Do you have any barriers that would prevent you to get into housing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

TURNER: Ex-felon...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

TURNER: ...Or anything like that? We don't care. We just - it - sometimes, it makes it easier which places to look for. All right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

TURNER: All right, man.

JOHNSON: The man seems less than enthused about getting help, at least for now. Turner says that's part of the long process of getting people off the street. The HOPE team spends a lot of time responding to calls for service about trash, abandoned vehicles and fires at homeless encampments. But Turner says if residents really want them to clean up public spaces, they need more restrictions on what people can do on public land.

TURNER: That's sort of the idea behind that ordinance, is to give us the legal authority to say, hey, we're helping you kind of thing, and if you don't want our help, that's fine. But you can't be here.

JOHNSON: That ordinance he's talking about is a ban on camping in public places, making fires and parking RVs on county land. It was just approved by county commissioners. It expands existing camping bans already enforced by the cities of Reno and Sparks. Violations could result in a misdemeanor criminal charge. Now that it's law, Doug Sobolik is afraid of the consequences. He says he's been living on the streets of Reno for the last eight years.

DOUG SOBOLIK: You'll be targeted, so people that are using drugs will be targeted first. I'm sure of that.

JOHNSON: Sobolik also worries the ordinance could give law enforcement an excuse to search through unhoused people's belongings simply because they're sleeping outside. Meanwhile, local faith leaders have been organizing against the measure since it was introduced more than a year ago. Father Chuck Durante, who leads the Nevada Interfaith Association, says it's wrong to punish people for trying to survive.

CHUCK DURANTE: To arrest them because they're sleeping in their car or sleeping on the street is, in essence, criminalizing poverty.

JOHNSON: Over the last few years, Durante has seen more and more people forced to sleep outside as housing prices rise. Affordable housing stock hasn't kept pace with demand as the region's population continues to grow. Jesse Rabinowitz with the National Homelessness Law Center says these camping bans don't solve anything, but government officials across the country are doing it anyway.

JESSE RABINOWITZ: They just don't want to see homelessness anymore.

JOHNSON: Florida recently adopted a statewide camping ban, just like Tennessee and Texas before it, and lawmakers in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Arizona are considering similar bills. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that could overturn legal protections for unhoused people. They'll review a lower court ruling that's blocked local governments in western states from clearing out encampments unless there are adequate shelter beds available. Back in Reno, Doug Sobolik says instead of displacing people with camping bans, the county should bring services directly to them.

SOBOLIK: I just want to remind them that we're human beings that have slipped through the cracks.

JOHNSON: And Sobolik says he's already seeing more unhoused people trying to go unnoticed by sleeping outside in the freezing cold without any shelter at all. For NPR News, I'm Bert Johnson in Reno.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI'S "ELEMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bert Johnson
Bert is KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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