As winter arrives, some folks lacking stable housing head for homeless shelters, while others hunker down in a van or recreational vehicle parked on city streets.
That’s what Mona, 73 and John, 82, are doing. The couple has been living in an RV parked on Reno streets for more than two years. They bought the motor home for about $200 when they couldn’t find housing together.
Mona and John are Social Security recipients who said they were pushed out of their homes by the steeply rising cost of housing in the Reno area. Living in the camper was the only suitable option if they wanted to get off the streets, Mona said.
“We’ve given so much and have worked all our lives, raising kids and grandkids, and this is where we are,” she said.
They have been able to renovate some parts of the camper to make it more livable during the winter months. They’ve added better insulation to the walls. They have a propane space heater they use sparingly, only when the temperature drops so low that blankets alone won’t keep away the cold.
Living in the vehicle is tiresome, Mona said. To supplement their Social Security and disability checks, they occasionally sell some of their belongings. Still, they said they are grateful that they have a roof, albeit a thin one, over their heads
Other nomads, like Jody, 45 and Tony, 46, tough out the winter living in cars or trucks. Jody and Tony reside in a white Chevrolet S-10 pickup filled with the belongings they’ve been able to keep. That’s a step down from where they were living last year, when the couple lived in a recreational vehicle they had purchased with winnings from a run of luck at a Reno casino. They also had several appliances that made the motor home a more comfortable abode.
Their good fortune ended after an acquaintance stole the RV and stripped virtually everything that could be sold out of it, they said. They started over—again.
“You have to restart so many times, because everything gets taken over and over again by the other homeless people, (or) by the city, you know,” Jody said. “I don’t know how many times I restarted, (maybe) 20 or so times.”
Being able to buy food and gas is also a problem. They have a limited ability to store perishable food, and skyrocketing gas prices deplete their budget. They try to move their car as little as possible.
That’s a problem, because they have to move their car every few days or risk being charged with a parking violation, another extra expense they can’t afford. Other people who live in their vehicles face the same dilemma.
James, 65, who lives in his vehicle, said it’s easiest to stay around industrial areas near the river, rather than near residential areas where neighbors are apt to call the police. James typically stays in an area of Sparks where he is less likely to be face parking violations.
James said he has been homeless for nearly 10 years. He has stayed at the shelter on Record Street and lived for years at the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission, where he worked as a volunteer.
James was recently diagnosed with throat cancer and has been treated with chemotherapy and radiation, which he said caused a range of side effects. Those included an inflamed tongue, sores all over his mouth and a general feeling of weakness. He said he has since stopped treatment, because he’d rather be enjoying his time than suffering through the awful effects of the treatment. His truck, he said, is more comfortable than a homeless shelter.
Local authorities keep an eye out for people living in vehicles.
“We do enforce any normal parking infraction,” said Alex Woodley, the director of parking and code enforcement for the city of Reno. “… We have to do that regardless of whether someone is in the car or not.”
There’s a line between citing unoccupied vehicles and those with people living inside. Woodley noted the city takes a hands-off approach when it comes to people living in their vehicles. He cited a 2014 ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that overturned a 1983 Los Angeles law prohibiting the use of a car as living quarters.
Cities within the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, like Reno, need to rethink their ordinances prohibiting the ability to use vehicles for sleeping or living purposes, Woodley said. Reno has such a law on the books, but after the court’s ruling eight years ago, police stopped citing people who are using their vehicles as shelter. Woodley said officers don’t seek out people living in vehicles, but do follow up on citizen complaints about abandoned vehicles on city streets.
Woodley said the city doesn’t keep a running count of the number of people living in vehicles. The area’s annual point-in-time count, an annual tabulation of individuals in the area who are experiencing degrees of homelessness or unstable housing, in February tallied 1,188 people in shelters or transitional housing and 417 living on the streets, in parks or along the Truckee River. The survey didn’t note how many were living in vehicles.
Woodley said the city receives around 7,000 complaints a year from residents about vehicles being abandoned or used as living quarters. When complaints come in about people living in parked RVs or other vehicles, city officials tell the concerned citizens that the practice isn’t illegal. At the same time, Woodley said, parking enforcement officers tell vehicle-dwellers about available social services in the area.
Woodley said Reno Police Department’s Mobile Outreach Safety Team pairs officers with clinicians to help those who may need mental health assistance. Compliance officers also can reach out to the department’s community action officers (CAO) for help.
That team, however, has a bad reputation among many homeless people. Two years ago, during widespread “sweeps” of homeless camps when the new homeless shelter opened in Reno, some community action officers were accused of being overly aggressive with the people in the camps. RPD Officer Ryan Gott, for example, was the subject of media reports alleging that he abused and belittled unhoused people during a June 2020 sweep of an encampment near Wells Avenue in Reno. ThisIsReno.com posted a video from a police body camera that showed Gotts screaming at people inside the encampment and using a knife to slash open a tent.
On RPD’s website, Gotts remains listed as a member of the CAO team, patrolling and responding to calls in the south of Reno.
Woodley emphasized that the city’s goal is to provide unhoused people with options to connect with services and get help. Parking enforcement officers don’t carry guns or handcuffs and are often seen by homeless people as less threatening than police officers. The idea, he said, is to avoid harassing people and to direct them to services or agencies.
One partial solution to getting people living in vehicles off the streets is to designate some parking lots as safe havens. There, they have access to amenities including electricity, bathrooms and showers, without having to worry about piling up parking citations. Some cities have had success with that approach. In Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, those parking lots are used in connection with a counseling center called New Beginnings. That program began in 2004.
Woodley said there have been conversations among officials about starting a similar program at the Cares Campus, but no action has been taken thus far.
In the meantime, officials speculate that the sagging economy, high rents and the destruction of weekly rental motels will increase the number of unhoused people in the Truckee Meadows. This winter may find a lot more people living in cars, trucks, vans and RVs. As long as some unhoused people are reluctant to go to the Cares shelter, living in vehicles will remain an option for housing of last resort.
Hi. I’m Jody. Still out here in this old truck restarting again. It seems we get stuck in this vicious cycle and it is so difficult to get out. Each time I have been blessed with an opportunity to get ahead, I seem to get knocked back down and have to start all over again. It is such a struggle to survive the day, not leaving much time to plan for the future. I’ve been through some stuff and I am lucky to be here and healthy. I’m blessed with this darn truck and I am determined to get through each day giving another person a reason to smile. We can never lose hope.
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