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Local News

Washoe County votes to criminalize unhoused for living in cars, camping on county-owned property

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Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
March 27, 2024

Despite Washoe County Commissioners declaring they don’t much care for the idea, a majority of commissioners voted Tuesday to make it a crime for people experiencing homelessness to live in their cars.

Commissioners agreed the lack of housing has worsened the region’s homeless crisis, mulled the idea to designate parking lots for people living in their cars, and even voiced concerns over criminalizing homelessness, but still approved imposing restrictions on where unhoused people sleep. 

The ordinance, which passed in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, makes it a misdemeanor to camp on county-owned property or within 1,000 feet of the Truckee River, live in vehicles on county owned property or public spaces, and obstruct uses of the public sidewalk. 

The Washoe County’s Sheriff’s Office told commissioners the goal was not to over-incarcerate.

Corey Solferino, the chief deputy of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, said the ordinance would put the Washoe in line with similar ordinances adopted by Reno and Sparks.

“While we understand the sheriff and the (Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement) HOPE team’s intentions with this and the efforts to make this less harmful, at the end of the day it’s still an anti-camping ordinance,” said Chasity Martinez, an organizer with Faith in Action. “It is still fundamentally flawed by being a law that criminalizes people for doing things that are life sustaining.”

As in much of the country, Nevada has seen a growing number of ordinances banning camping and restricting sleeping in public places as homelessness increases. 

Sparks just passed an ordinance clarifying the criminal intent of ordinances that outlaw sleeping in cars and on sidewalks. 

In nearly two hours of public comment, which was overwhelmingly in opposition to the bill, residents, religious groups and housing advocates tried to sway commissioners not to pass similar measures. 

County Commission Chair Alexis Hill said when the ordinance was initially proposed in 2022, she “had some serious concerns” and voted against going forward.

While she said she had “difficulty with what the ordinance is” and said she wanted to revisit the ordinance’s implementation in a year, she voted for the bill.

“We are being told by our staff this is something they need,” Hill said. 

Commissioner Mariluz Garcia agreed that “the lack of housing is the main issue here” but chose to support the ordinance after complaints from her constituents about illegal dumping and fire hazards. 

“We all know and all agree that more housing is going to be the thing that ultimately ends homelessness in our region,” she said. 

Vice Chair Jeanne Herman and Commissioner Michael Clark voted against the measure. 

Clark expressed concerns that the public defender wasn’t at the meeting to weigh in on the ordinance.

“It’s going to be the public defender and alternate public defender defending these people because they are indigent, because they are on the streets, and because they don’t have a house or any assets,” he said. 

The public defenders officer, he added, needs “to weigh in on what we should be doing before we make a logical decision.”

Clark also suggested looking at other solutions, such as designating certain parking lots for those with cars to sleep at night, as long as the car is operational and drivers have licenses. 

The county, he added, could also provide showers and portable toilets.

Garcia supported the idea of “potentially piloting a safe parking option.” 

“I think vehicular homelessness is really a gap in services in our region,” she said.

Commissioners gave no timeline on when Washoe could see that idea come into effect. 

Solferino said the goal was not to arrest on the first offense. 

Law enforcement, he said, has discretion to issue a verbal warning first, followed by a written warning, and attempt to connect  people experiencing homelessness with services and referring them to community court prior to a citation or arrest. 

“We do not want to incarcerate,” Solferino said. “We want to provide a pathway and push toward services. Some people simply aren’t ready for housing and we want to make sure they get the ability to be reformed.” 

The ordinance comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that prevents cities from punishing unhoused folks for sleeping on the streets if there aren’t enough adequate shelter beds. 

The court’s jurisdiction includes Nevada.

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This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.