Moving the Homeless On if Not Arrest them? Why Not Solve the Problem?

Anti-vagrancy laws are not the best way to reduce homelessness

As Nevada’s second city ( with apologies to Henderson) may find out

Print edition | United States


ON A sunny morning, downtown Reno is mostly empty, save for a handful of tourists. Two women speaking Spanish ogle diamonds in one of many pawn shops; a Chinese couple snaps photos under the city’s archway with its inscription, “The biggest little city in the world”. Residents avoid the area for fear that it is unsafe, says Boyd Cox, an affable veteran who owns a large antique shop downtown. Mr Cox sometimes finds homeless people sleeping under the overhang at the entrance. “When I recently asked one friend—a retired fireman—to stop by the store for a visit, he shook his head and said: ‘No, no, I don’t go downtown.’”

Although homelessness is hard to measure, available statistics suggest that Reno’s homeless population is on the rise even as America’s homeless population as a whole is declining. In 2011, 879 people lived on Reno’s streets, in shelters and in transitional housing. By January 2017 that number had increased to 1,106, meaning about 32 of every 10,000 residents is homeless (the national rate is 18 per 10,000 people). To burnish downtown Reno’s reputation, the city council is considering several new ordinances, one of which would ban people from lying or sleeping on private or public property without permission. Such policies are increasingly common. According to the National Law Centre on Homelessness & Poverty, 18% of the 187 American cities it surveyed in 2016 imposed citywide bans on sleeping in public, a significant increase since 2006.

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In 2012 Apple announced that it would open a data centre in Reno’s arid outskirts. Tesla and Google have since followed. The infusion of wealth has transformed parts of the city; the Midtown area south of the Truckee river now boasts trendy restaurants, artisanal chocolate makers, and a renovated art-deco post-office building.

As the city’s fortunes have risen, so too have its rents, occupancy rates and house prices. Since 2012 the median price of a home has doubled; the average rental price jumped 17% between 2014 and 2016. In January the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless counted nearly 4,000 people living in weekly motels, up from 2,560 in 2011. Those who cannot afford motels have moved into shelters or onto the street.

If the proposed ordinance to ban sleeping outside passes, Reno’s police officers will be directed to try persuading those living on the streets to move to shelters. If they have no space, the homeless living on the street will be left alone. But if they do, anyone living outside who refuses to move in after a warning might be arrested.

An arrest record makes it harder for a homeless person to find employment or housing in the future. Many studies suggest there are cheaper ways to tackle the problem. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, a charity, found that the average costs associated with the incarceration and hospitalisation of a chronically homeless person are about triple what it would cost to provide a chronically homeless person with housing. Between 2007 and 2015, New Orleans reduced its homelessness rate by 85%, primarily by providing housing. Reno’s city government should take a look.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Reno way
Mohandas Gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”