Nevada is facing a housing affordability crisis just like many other parts of the West. A growing population is causing rents to rise and putting the squeeze on the city’s low-income residents.
And now that crisis is spilling onto the banks of the Truckee River flowing through downtown Reno.
Increasingly, the river has become a refuge to more and more people who have nowhere else to live, where they gather in encampments. But they don’t get services like trash pickup or public restrooms, and the waste from these communities presents a new challenge for city workers.
That's a big problem for Reno and Sparks, which get 85% of their drinking water from the river, which also provides a habitat for wildlife and summer recreation for locals who take to the Truckee with inner tubes and sometimes surfboards.
Brian Litke is one of the Renoites living along the river. He’s been here on and off for about seven years, sharing a tent with his rambunctious pitbull, Stella. He keeps his stuff to a bare minimum, so he has less to haul when the cops tell him to move.
“I’ve seen 'em come through — ‘You got five minutes. Get outta here!’ — that’s why there’s a lot of the mess that’s left,” he said. “I’m gonna leave garbage, I’m sorry.”
City officials say they always give people notice before a cleanup, but Litke said he and his neighbors don’t always get the heads up in time. That last-minute scramble means people staying on the river can’t clean up after themselves, even if they want to.
On a bright, relatively warm December day, a crew of Public Works employees from the city of Reno in chartreuse safety vests use a frontloader to collect trash at John Champion park on the Truckee River. Walking carefully between trees and boulders, they collect debris from the riverbank. Then the huge machine scoops it up, one massive pile at a time, and puts it in a dumpster to be hauled away.
“That’s probably about anywhere from two to three cubic yards right now,” Jaime Schroeder explained as she watched the machine at work. “You’re gonna see some discarded bedding, it looks like some bamboo for a little privacy barrier and some old clothing.”
Schroeder is director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services for the city of Reno. She was there to supervise the crew, although it isn’t officially part of her job.
On any given day, they’ll collect up to 120 cubic yards of trash leftover from homeless encampments, including bags of human feces and hypodermic needles. Looking at a nearby heap of discarded clothes and other material, Schroeder explained the warning signs city workers watch out for.
“I’m counting four, five orange needle caps, which makes me pretty positive that there’s likely gonna be some needles in the trash pile itself.”
But Schroeder also said the city has to take workers away from other jobs, like sewer maintenance, to help tackle the growing river garbage problem.
“The sewers team is also responsible for cleaning out our storm drains,” she said. “So if we’re having to do these cleanups along the river, we’re not out there making sure the storm drains are clear.”
Reno City Council members voted in December to hire a private company, COIT, to help remove the waste so they could end the practice of redesignating city employees to pick up refuse on the river.
Back at John Champion Park, COIT employees were helping the city crew clean up for the first time. Eventually, they’ll take over full responsibility for the river cleanups under the direction of a city staffer. But that new contract comes with an estimated cost of $245,805 for six months of cleanups, much more than the city pays to use its own crews.
Assistant City Manager Bill Thomas estimates that reassigning Public Works crews cost Reno around $60,000 last year. But he also said the contract with COIT is worth it, because their crews will be available seven days a week. Longterm, he predicts that will decrease the amount of waste getting into the river.
“While on the surface it’s more money, I think it’s important to understand that it’s also more frequent cleanups,” he said. “The way we’re doing it right now, we often don’t get to it until there’s maybe three or four or five dumptrucks worth of material. And that’s not a good place to be.”
Andy Gebhardt is Director of Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the agency responsible for providing water to Reno and Sparks. It’s his job to remove the refuse from the Truckee River so it can be treated for the community to use.
He said the city’s water is safe to drink, despite the problems on the riverbank. But he supports the city’s new plan, because his employees are often required to remove the debris by hand.
“They have needles floating around their legs,” Gebhardt said. “And bags of human waste floating down, hitting our intake structure — we have to pull those out. They’re gross.”
In November, the buildup of waste on the river got so bad the Washoe County Health District issued a notice of violation against Reno. That triggered a new round of cleanups and prompted the City Council to approve the contract with COIT.
But homeless advocates wish the city would come up with other solutions for addressing the root of the problem. Kim Barghouti with the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, or RISE, wants to see that quarter million dollars used to keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.
“Before the money is spent to clean up the river, we would like to see that money spent to develop more resources, another place for the people to go,” she said.
Barghouti points to the region’s economic boom as one of the reasons for the higher numbers of people sleeping by the river.
“For the last few years, the numbers of the homeless have been increasing,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve experienced in the last two years a dramatic increase in rent. And the combination of the two, besides the added population moving in, has made a lot of people simply without homes.”
For Barghouti, the contract with COIT is a band aid — cleaning the river when waste builds up without actually addressing the source of that waste.
“When Reno does this in isolation, the people move out of Reno. They go into Sparks, they go into the unincorporated area,” she said. “They’re still on the river. You haven’t changed anything about water quality. All you’ve done is displaced them.”
Brian Litke would love to move into a designated safe campsite, if the city sets one up. But until that happens, he says all he can do is pack up and leave when police tell him to.
“We really haven’t any place else to go but the river, really.”
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