Coronavirus disperses Reno’s homeless – shelters close, Events Center used for emergency housing

The Downtown Reno Events Center was converted into a massive homeless shelter that helped enhance social distancing protocols for the houseless. This image was taken on March 21, 2020, the first night the 118,000 square foot, multi-purpose facility was used to house people. In early August the facility no longer housed people, and the City of Reno set up a temporary facility on 4th St to safely accommodate the houseless during the pandemic - image - Brian Bahouth

More than a week before Nevada’s Governor closed nonessential businesses, the numbers of people living in and around the Wingfield Park band shell in Downtown Reno have been on the rise. The Reno Sparks Gospel Mission, three Volunteers of America shelters, and the Record Street Shelter are full every night in the winter. Space is understandably coveted.  Fear of the coronavirus in the tight confines of the steamy shelters has been driving many out into the city, away from warm food and sanitation, despite the sub-freezing nighttime temperatures and snow.

Last night, the homeless shelters closed. Social distancing protocols can not be safely maintained. In response to the closures, the 118,000 square foot Downtown Reno Events Center opened to house 400 people.

For weeks, with the gradual advent of coronavirus news, more people than usual have been living in urban nooks under tarps. As the sun set last night, a half dozen people chose to sleep on the Wingfield Park band shell stage under the high roof, a tangle of fabric, plastic and cardboard.

Nearby, two couples and a sleeping man were relaxing on the grass and vigorously discussing something when I approached them at a safe biological distance and asked where they would be spending the night.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Shawn Burroughs, a Reno native.

Shawn Burroughs and Shawn Holstius have been homeless for weeks and often living outside for fear of the coronavirus in a cramped shelter – image – Brian Bahouth.

Burrough’s husband Shawn Holstius said with the coronavirus pandemic looming, he’d rather take his chances outside than inside a crowded shelter.

“I slept all night last night with gloves on and three pairs of socks and I was frozen,” he said.

Burroughs referred to the Events Center as a “quarantine.” She and Holstius would continue to sleep outside.

“Gross,” Holstius said when asked about staying in the shelter under the specter of COVID-19.

“Ewww,” said Burroughs.

Violence on the street

A man and woman who did not want to be identified said they have been living on the streets for weeks.

“I was working and leaving my stuff out here, and people were stealing it, so we are constantly having to move. I tried to get her and I off the streets,” he said pointing to his partner. “I’ve been trying to get my mom off the streets, and now with this whole coronavirus thing, it’s a little more difficult.”

This couple has been living on the street for weeks and are tentative to go to the shelter for fear of the coronavirus – image – Brian Bahouth.

The unidentified couple said the police and ambassadors from The Downtown Reno Partnership, a business improvement district in Reno, are constantly making them move.  The couple ultimately lost most of their possessions.

“We were over near Idyllwild Park and we didn’t realize it was private property, and the owner of the property threw all of our stuff in the river. Yeah, this just happened like two weeks ago. He threw all of our clothing, our tent, our blankets and everything into the river,” she said.

“He didn’t even give us the chance to get it and move it,” he said. “And then he came at her with a stick threatening her.”

Despite the trials of living where they can, the couple will continue to live outside.

Without going to the shelter, they all said there are few places to go to the bathroom or wash their hands or clothing.

“I’ve been wearing the same clothes for five days,” Shawn Burroughs half yelled.

Reno councilwoman Neoma Jardon broke the news that the Events Center would be used as a homeless shelter on Twitter.

Even though the Events Center will be a more commodious and biologically safer than the shelters, the four people I chatted with in Wingfield Park fear the combination of close quarters and coronavirus. Notwithstanding these concerns, last night, hundreds lined up to get into the Events Center.

How long the Center will remain a shelter is yet to be determined, but concerts and other events have been cancelled for at least 30 days in accordance with the Governor’s emergency declaration. But no matter how long the Events Center will be used to house people, as of March 21, 2020, most of those who need to take advantage of emergency housing are off the street and in a biologically safer situation than they were yesterday.