The city of Reno is considering a broad ordinance that would effectively make it illegal to be homeless downtown. It comes at a time when housing costs are rising, the homeless population is growing, and business owners and the city are making a concerted push to revitalize the downtown core. The possibility of a new anti-vagrancy law has drawn criticism from the ACLU of Nevada, homeless advocates and clergy who work with Reno’s most vulnerable residents — but also has the support from many downtown business owners.
The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to climb, sit or lay on public structures not “designated for such purpose”; to spit on public property; sleep on public or private property without permission; use a cell phone while crossing the street; or sit or lay in Retrac Plaza, a large, open plaza in the heart of downtown. Violators would face a penalty of eight to 200 hours of community service cleaning up downtown.
Spurred by the opening of a Tesla battery factory and other tech companies and a population growing faster than housing supply, the cost of an average single-family home has doubled since 2012 and average rents have climbed 25 percent.
“This proposed legislation is both inhumane and ineffective,” testified Jennifer Cassady, from Reno Initiative for Equality and Shelter. “This legislation seeks to punish people for their class status rather than their behavior.”
Council Member Oscar Delgado says the ordinance is crafted to do just the opposite. (Delgado is a Next City board member and also a Next City Vanguard.) “This isn’t geared towards the houseless,” he says. “It’s geared towards behavior in general. We have people who are aggressive not only to locals but tourists. How do we make sure everyone is being treated respectfully?”
Council members point to the cell phone clause as evidence that the ordinance is meant to target behaviors that extend across class boundaries. They also say the climbing clause is there because they’ve seen an uptick in people climbing on bridges and statues downtown for photo ops.
But though the ordinance focuses on some behaviors that aren’t specific to homeless people, there’s no question it is an ordinance targeted at people living and sleeping downtown, a group that some business owners see as an impediment to downtown revitalization plans and a new business improvement district to help fund it.