A month into COVID-19 national emergency, NDOT cancels homeless camp clean-ups

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The City of Reno sets up a temporary homeless shelter at the Reno Events Center in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Reno Gazette Journal

Following a last-minute sweep cancellation, the Nevada Department of Transportation has also suspended any major cleanups at homeless encampments until further notice during the coronavirus outbreak. 

The city of Reno had already stopped doing cleanups March 11, citing Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

And more than a month after the pandemic was declared a national emergency, NDOT was set to conduct a clean-up Wednesday morning at a bridge on Kietzke Lane, near Fisherman’s Park. 

The agency issued notices to people camping in the area that they needed to relocate. The notice also warned those who needed to relocate that any items left behind would be disposed of.

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According to NDOT spokeswoman Meg Ragonese, notices are handed out 48 to 72 hours ahead of the cleaning. But the sweep, which was scheduled at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, was canceled last-minute.

Ragonese said NDOT received a request from the Washoe County Emergency Operation Center within the past two days to cease clean-ups. 

According to the CDC website, communities are advised to not clear encampments during the spread of COVID-19, unless individual housing units are available for homeless residents.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC said on its website. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Instead, individuals camping outside should be encouraged to sleep in tents that are at least 12-feet apart.

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Ragonese said Wednesday that NDOT normally conducts clean-ups in highway right-of-way areas such as areas under bridges and along the sides of highways.

NDOT routinely conducts visual reviews of homeless encampments, she said in an email to the Reno Gazette Journal.

“Keeping these areas clean helps protect the health and safety of all community members, as well as protects Truckee River water quality,” Ragonese said in the email.

“Ultimately our top priority is safety for all. Following CDC guidance, we are currently suspending these clean-up activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce movement and potential virus spread across the community.”

According to city of Reno spokesman Jon Humbert, the last time the city conducted a clean-up was on March 11. 

“We stopped those actions in accordance with CDC and the governor’s guidelines,” Humbert said in an email on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, NDOT conducted two clean-ups in mid-March. 

Recent sweeps were aimed at cleaning the area along the Truckee River and reducing roadside trash, which could create road hazards, Ragonese said.

Still, the agency has scaled back on cleanings, she said.

NDOT contracts crew members to conduct the cleanings, all of whom routinely wear personal protective gear, including gloves and work boots.

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Ragonese said crew members previously did not wear masks but are now using handmade masks.

Late last month, the city of Reno opened a makeshift homeless shelter in the Downtown Events Center to provide extra space for homeless people staying at the regional homeless shelter and overflow shelter on Washington Street—both of which are operated by Volunteers of America.

City officials opened its 118,000-square-foot concert venue in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Marcella Corona is a breaking news reporter who covers crime and justice in Northern Nevada. Support her work by subscribing to RGJ.com.

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