(UPDATE, June 8: Police officers showed up at the protest the morning of June 7, the day after this guest opinion column was published, but did not remove the demonstrators at noon. The protest continues at City Plaza (Believe Plaza). Police planned to return at 4:30 a.m. June 9 with a city crew to "clean" the lawn area. Protestors said they plan to strike the tents, but continue the protest on the concrete portions of the plaza, a designated "free speech" zone.)
The morning of June 4, the Stop the Sweeps protest at the Believe Plaza in downtown Reno received written notice that: “This area has been deemed to need cleaning/maintenance and will be closed to public use.”
For those participating in the protest, there is an exasperating irony to be holding this particular piece of paper. After weeks spent pleading — in vain — with Reno city officials to stop the ongoing brutal sweeps of encampments, mutual aid groups, advocates for Reno’s unsheltered, and supportive community members have organized a demonstration downtown to bring attention to the city’s cruel intransigence as it scatters, traumatizes, and dehumanizes its unhoused residents.
Tents are pitched on the lawn as symbols of the hundreds of homes that have been bulldozed over the past month, many still full of belongings their occupants did not have time to save. The notice, on the other hand, is not a symbol: this very same paper has been used to summarily evict the unhoused from their homes for the purpose of ‘cleaning,’ which is an appalling euphemism for what actually happens, which is ‘razing to the ground.’
Has the City of Reno – particularly the city manager, the City Council and the Reno Police Department – really fallen so hopelessly out of touch? The past few demoralizing weeks clearly indicate that, yes, they have. Bring up the sweeps with anyone in city government or law enforcement and you get the same, robotic response: the Nevada CARES Campus.
When RPD boasts about the ‘outreach’ they do — and let me add how frustrating it is to hear that word tossed around so disingenuously — what they mean by ‘outreach’ is telling someone, ‘Go to the CARES campus. You don’t have a choice.’
What is the CARES Campus, anyway, and why does everyone, including RPD, insist on calling it that? I’d guess that the big, lofty sounding name is meant to neatly obscure what it actually refers to: an enormous FEMA-style tent now full of 531 people arranged in cots, head-to-toe.
Well, there must be more than one structure for it to be called a campus, right? There are bathrooms and showers built into shipping containers and there is an old, very dilapidated building currently being used for storage (if you stay in the tent you get a high-school sized locker for your essentials and the rest of your stuff goes into the storage building, which I’d be nervous to spend too much time in, given its condition).
There are no laundry facilities. There is no shade. There is no privacy. Oh, and for some time there was no bathroom either because the city skimped on plumbing and things got backed up and they had to bring in porta potties.
“Most importantly, for the people staying at the CARES Campus there is no clear next step. Without permanent, affordable, supportive housing available to those who need it, it doesn’t matter what you call the new shelter: it’s a warehouse to keep the houseless out of sight.” — Ilya Arbatman, Stop the Sweeps.
When the city denies that people may have perfectly legitimate reasons for being unwilling or unable to stay at the CARES Campus, it is out of touch with those it’s claiming to serve. Mental health struggles are prevalent among the unhoused, and you don’t have to be a mental health expert to see how staying in a tent with 500 other people could wreak havoc on someone dealing with anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, or manic depression.
When Jon Humbert, public information officer for the City of Reno, says (sipping his coffee as people’s possessions are bulldozed behind him), “We are hopeful that people are going to take up that opportunity [the CARES Campus], if that’s the particular way they want to live,” he is sorely out of touch with the people he is supposedly referring to, and he seems to be confused about the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘want.’
Chased from empty lot to empty lot, evicted and moved over and over again, forced to abandon most of your belongings and told you have one place left to go, the CARES Campus — does any of that sound like an ‘opportunity’ someone might ‘want’ to take? When RPD serves the Stop the Sweeps protest a notice to vacate the Believe Plaza (by June 7 at noon) or be ‘cleaned,’ it is so deeply out of touch with what the community is experiencing and what the community is asking for.
Stop the Sweeps does not mean cancel all city ordinances and let everyone camp where they want, when they want (that’s a battle for another day, perhaps). Stop the Sweeps is not so much about the law as it is about enforcement, which is in all cases discretionary, and in this case central to the issue at hand: how we see, how we treat and how we help those who need it most.
I have a hunch that, should the protest be ‘swept’ come Monday (June 7), there will be no bulldozers. There will be no Officer Utter contemptuously saying things like, “I’m not a social worker,” and, “I would never put myself in that position [living on the street].” There will be no blue-shirted city employees pointing at people’s personal items strewn all over the street and laughing. There will be no frantic sorting of everything someone owns because only so much will fit in the van and whatever we leave will be crushed to rubble. There will be no animals hiding under tarps and milk crates, terrified of all the noise. There will be no people sitting, defeated, by their trash bags of stuff and asking, in all seriousness, ‘Where are we supposed to go?’
Stop the Sweeps means start treating our houseless neighbors like human beings, not like trash to be swept away and forgotten about. Stop the Sweeps means recognizing that a rise in the unsheltered population points to a failure in the community — that includes the city government — to take care of its own. Stops the Sweeps means that we are ready to try proven, innovative approaches, such as sanctioned encampments, or Safe Camps, that combine outreach, autonomy, and compassion to work towards housing people, not warehousing them.
Stop the Sweeps means use discretion in enforcing ordinances so that existing services and those under development can have a chance to succeed. If you scatter people, which inevitably happens during any sweep — you compromise their ability to stay in touch with case workers and advocates. The opening of the Safe Camp at the CARES Campus is slated for June 17th, just a couple weeks away – Stop the Sweeps means setting the Safe Camp up for success by treating its future residents with dignity.
Stop the Sweeps is a protest, a coalition of housed Reno community members doing their best to advocate for their unhoused neighbors. Threatening to sweep the protest shows just how out of touch the city really is.
“Does Mayor Schieve see a tent and immediately demand, ‘Get that out of my sight’? Does she have any connection whatsoever to what is happening in her own city, to the brutal displacement of hundreds of people, to the trauma and pain of being down and out only to be kicked even further down, again and again?” — Ilya Arbatman, Stop the Sweeps.
If you agree that this inhumane treatment of the unhoused must stop, call and e-mail Mayor Schieve and ask that she call a special meeting of City Council with an agenda item to be voted on to stop the sweeps. And let your Councilmember know how you feel, as well. Petition and local official contact info here. The community is waking up, and if the sweeps continue, so will the protest. Information about Stop the Sweeps and the bulldozing of the camps can be found on Instagram #renoheartsyou.
Stop the Sweeps!