Reno successfully cut unhoused population by half. Can San Francisco do the same?

Washoe County Officials said they did not want to turn into another San Francisco

Lyanne Melendez Image
Saturday, December 16, 2023
What SF can learn from Reno in reducing homelessness
The city of Reno was able to successfully cut its unhoused population by half. Can San Francisco do the same? ABC7 visited the city to learn more.

RENO, Nev. (KGO) -- There are those who say the homeless issue in San Francisco will never be fully solved. Yet, the Reno area seems to be making large inroads when it comes to reducing and supporting its unhoused population.

ABC7 News was given video of what downtown Reno looked like in 2020, early in the pandemic. Homeless encampments along the river and railroad tracks.

Nearly four years later, the landscape has changed after Washoe County drastically expanded it's shelter capacity.

Because the county has enough shelter beds, the cities of Reno and Sparks can now enforce the no-camping rules.

This is downtown Reno. There used to be a lot of tents here, now it has been cleaned up.

We found Reno's downtown ambassadors patrolling the streets 24/7, making sure people move along and no one sets up a tent.

MORE: US homelessness up 12% to highest reported level as rents soar and coronavirus pandemic aid lapses

That also means many of the unhoused like 62-year-old Helena Oliver finally have a warm bed and food.

"Finally, it was my time to live like a human being," she told us.

What led to their success? Federal funds during COVID and a well-planned coordinated effort between the cities of Reno, Sparks and Washoe County.

"The county is essentially the lead and we are ensuring that everyone works together and coordinated services for each individual. Instead of five different case workers from different non-profits each working on one person, we have one case worker working on one person and coordinating with all of the nonprofit partners, so it's a coordination issue," explained Alexis Hill, Chair of the Washoe County Board of Commissioners.

Where once there was a baseball field, those federal COVID funds were used to build the "Cares Campus" in 2021. About 600 people live in a huge tent and in sleeping pods.

That was one of the factors that helped to reduce the homeless population here in half.

VIDEO: Here's how an unhoused person navigates San Francisco's shelter system

Some unhoused people in San Francisco say getting a shelter bed is complicated and not practical.

"Right off the top, we're seeing a decrease in our use of emergency services, less calls to law enforcement, less calls to our ambulance service and reliance on the emergency room. We're also seeing more people be able to move into housing almost instantly when we brought in the case mangers," said Dana Searcy, of the Washoe County Housing and Homeless Services.

The county contracts with Volunteers of America to run the everyday needs of the campus.

The cost to pay for cases managers and behavioral health counselors are all paid for by the county .

As we saw, the campus is expanding.

"Now we're adding in all those services, so this is our welcome center. This will house all of our case management and our behavioral health people, all the training, nurse and the dining facilities will be in this one building. We have also brought in some showers, restrooms and laundry into permanent facilities, they were originally temporary," Searcy pointed out as she showed us all the construction around the campus.

Pets are also welcomed.

MORE: SF claims homeless individuals decline shelter 60% of the time but some say that's inaccurate

There are rules to be followed; no drugs, no alcohol and no visitors. But people can come and go.

Lyanne Melendez: "If I leave for the entire day, do I lose my place?"

Dana Searcy: "No."

Melendez: "Two days?"

Searcy: Yes, yes.

That, she says, minimizes any disruptions and keeps people here on track to getting support and eventually permanent housing.

VIDEO: San Francisco's top leaders discuss strategy on tackling homelessness

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Police Chief Bill Scott and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins answer questions on tackling the city's homelessness.

County officials have previously said they needed to get ahead of their homeless issue for fear they would turn into another San Francisco.

Melendez: "When people think of San Francisco here in Reno, in Sparks and the county - what comes to minds when it comes to the homeless?"

Alexis Hill: "I think it seems there's not a handle on it. I think the coordination is a concerning factor, but we had that too."

Washoe County has 500,000 people, San Francisco has a little more than 700,000.

They spend just shy of $32 million on homeless services. The budget for San Francisco's Department of Homelessness and Supportive housing is $672 million for fiscal year 2023.

Granted our entire homeless population is much larger, well over 7,000. Theirs is roughly 1,700.

MORE: A look at SF's struggle to clear homeless encampments as hundreds wait for shelters

It's no secret that San Francisco attracts many homeless people from other cities. Reno does not, in part, because of the winters here.

Not everyone is ready to commit to a shelter bed at the Cares Campus. For them, there are day services at the resource center.

Those on the streets of Reno or Sparks who refuse to go into any kind of shelter, face jail time or a fine.

"This is a rare thing, most of the time we can get folks to go to the Cares Campus," added Hill.

The average stay at the campus is less than eight months because the goal is to get people into permanent housing.

Helena invited us to see the small pod where she's been temporarily housed.

"And see, this is what I got today," Helena showed us the letter she's been waiting for, notifying her that an apartment had become available.

"It's my turn to shine and rise. I'm like the dirt, still I rise," Helena proudly said.

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