The cloudless daytime high temperature was around 50F. With sunset about an hour away, the expected low this evening will be 25F. As photographer Bob Tregilus and I walk down the tracks, I feel like we are entering a different world, a separate reality.
Golf ball-sized cobbles make it difficult to walk along the railroad tracks that cross 4th Street. The tracks run next to the Reno/Sparks Gospel Mission, St. Vincent’s kitchen, and Volunteers of America emergency shelter campus. The shelters for men, women and families are filled to capacity. An overflow of people are camped tightly together on either side of the tracks amid the well-distributed detritus of lives abandoned. The rails and orderly cement ties are the main street of an impromptu village of hundreds. Tents and tarps and cardboard structures parallel the tracks until the shiny rails disappear.
A few roll in blankets and sleep next to a rail line that crossing data shows sees two trains a day. Sickness is evident as people hack, cough and spit. A high metal fence surrounds the VOA campus and is open for now. A row of eight, busy portable toilets are set up in the parking lot and open to all.
Joe Baretta is living in a six-person tent next to the tracks. He’s 62 and had hip replacement surgery a couple years ago. He’s eligible to take his Social Security benefit but is waiting until he’s 65 to get a larger monthly stipend.
“I’ve been working solid the last 10 months, but the rents in this town are just unbelievable. That’s a big thing. There’s limited housing for some people that get SSI. They only get $770 bucks or whatever. How do you live like that?”
The line between having a place and being homeless is precariously thin. Unconstrained housing prices and low wages have made that line thinner. The average monthly rent in Reno is more than $1,200. The median house price is $420,000.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck and then bam. I was able to last three weeks in my place then my rent was due again. I’m out of work. But I didn’t sit on my butt either. I went to Integrity or Just in Time Staffing and found a job like that. Bam. I went Thursday and I’m working this coming Tuesday. I’m happy with that.”
Following his hip replacement, Baretta was not in a position to recuperate without an income, so he had to get back to work. Skilled construction work is typically well-paid, but like so many seasoned construction workers, Baretta suffers a variety of chronic medical conditions.
“I might have made a bad choice by leaving that job, but again, if I felt I was being taken advantage of, the wages in the casinos are terrible and not even up to minimum wage. I was at the Cal Neva for the last 10 months and I was on disability prior. I had a hip replacement and I said, ‘I’ll just have to go back to work.’ Four months later, I was back to work doing something. I can’t do the physical work I was used to do in construction.”
Joe Baretta has been on the street for 8 days. I ask him who is living out here?
“They had the ambition once. There’s a lot of late 30s and early 40s. You’ll see the majority are probably in their early 40s out here. Then you have your older folks but they probably have their SSI and whatever. They said there’s a lot of mental issues here. I blame Reagan for that. There’s no place for these people to go. But that’s the point. Sometimes I think just a good smile, a hello, good morning, how are you, have a great day is kind of uplifting for some but …”
Baretta’s speech trails off and he looks at the ground. I remember in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan defunded mental health facilities across the nation. Countless mentally ill people reentered society. After a few moments of silence, I ask Joe about the solution. He says the VOA and Gospel Mission are totally over-loaded, but they need to find money for essential things like bus passes.
“I think their case loads are heavy. They need more caseworkers, people that really have it in their heart and have that compassion for others.”
Baretta wishes for a public address system.
“I wish I could be a voice for these people … rally them up and give them that encouragement early in the mornings. It’d be nice to have a PA system here getting them fired up … get some music that gets them fired up and people want to get out and make something of their day.
“These people, there’s mental health issues, but I’d say 85 percent can work. They’re able bodies, but they just, they give up. You keep a person down so long … keep telling them … you can only browbeat somebody so much.”
There is a palpable sense of bedlam and danger in the homeless village. There are no rules. People are desperate. Some are addicted to heroin or methamphetamine or both. Some are mentally ill, and a growing number are among the working homeless, like Momma Bear. She lives in a one-woman tent.
“The reason so many people are out here is because the police came in through Sparks and came in through Reno then went back to Sparks and went back to Reno and pushed everybody over here. So that way they could find a reason to find the people who ruined the campsite so they could kick everybody out, and the homeless people have no place to stay. I firmly believe somebody needs to do something about that. And we also need to advocate for environmental issues, picking up our trash and taking it out.”
Mamma Bear says that many living along the tracks have jobs.
“I’m working. I cannot afford to live because I believe that the city needs to have a cap on the price of rent.”
Mamma Bear says she sees no ready solution to the problem of greed and that large homeless populations will persist. For her, changing the stigma of homelessness is part of the solution.
“I would solve it by first helping people to learn how to get along whether they were in a house or whether they were outside realizing that homeless people aren’t everything that the news depicts them to be.”
Momma Bear clearly resents the second class status of the homeless. She says living homeless doesn’t mean living without dignity and points to her tiny green tent.
“I have a clean space. I have a small tent. I don’t bother anybody. I’m quiet. I go to work. I make my money. I cannot afford the rent in Reno. I believe that the city and the mayor needs to do something about this rather than attacking the homeless because attacking the homeless is what pisses them off. And that’s why the homeless people react and do what they do.”
The temperature is dropping quickly as the sun reaches the horizon. When it’s clear at night the temperature has been dipping into the teens. For Momma Bear, it’s too cold to live in a tent.
“Hell, it’s taken me forever to get to be able to even save $135, and that’s a far cry from a month’s worth of rent. When I do, I’m going to get myself back into a place because you know what, it’s cold out here.
“We’re just as human as anybody else. We get cold. We get warm. We like a place to live and everything else like that. But you know, when you’re homeless out here like this and you wake up early in the morning you’re freezing. Your bones can’t move. You can’t do nothing. A lot of people don’t understand that. I had to actually get into a room for three or four days where I could get up in the morning, be warm, and have a shower and whatnot. So that way I could look good enough to go and get a job. That is the only way I was able to get a job.”
Next to Mamma Bear’s camp, a tall, thin man stoops to emerge from a six-person tent packed with belongings. His graying hair is long and straight and parted in the middle. Large sunglasses cover half his face. He’s entirely dressed in black. His bare finger tips protrude from black bicycle gloves, thumbs tucked into his belt. In-between his hands, the handles of four knives extend up from the waist of his jeans. Under a black leather vest, the word SECURITY is emblazoned in stark white capital letters across a black t-shirt.
“I’m not even on SSI. I get $192 a month in food stamps and I can’t get out of this town. I’ve been out of prison now for three years trying to make it. I get work out at the Salvation Army and that’s about it. I get help from a church organization called Church Without Walls.
“They do this all the time because Elon Musk is in town and all these big businesses. These property, these managers of these cockroach and rat infested motel rooms that are shot out. Either the heaters don’t work or the AC don’t work. They want to charge $200 a week, $800 a month. And if I was to get SSI, my amount would probably be $751. So I still have to find somebody to borrow $49 from or go mug somebody … I’d have to commit a crime, do something illegal just to make it for a whole month, and I don’t want to do that.”
Nearby, inebriated men claw and shriek at each other over a green t-shirt they are tearing to shreds. Security in the camps is sketchy for the toughest of characters.
“Last night another one (woman) screamed. I think she was down at the same spot where the last one was raped. I could hear her from here but I knew that I wouldn’t have been able to get there in time. So I just sat here and I listened to her. She stopped screaming after a little bit. I think it was not a killing. I think it was probably just another rape.”
The volunteer security guard has been on the street for three years and describes an ongoing cat and mouse relationship with the police. He’s been on the move for the entire time he’s been homeless.
“Keith the homeless cop, for a few months he’s all right. Then all of a sudden, right before winter, he chases everybody off the river and off all the other places. They all end up back over here. Now what will happen is within the next few weeks, they’ll come out here, the police department again, maybe with railroad cops, and they’ll kick everybody out of here, and everybody’s gonna either have to go back down to the river or scatter and find a place under a bridge or somewhere.”
The security guard doesn’t have the resources to move to another city where rents are less expensive. He’s holding hope that a settlement from his father’s death with lift him out of abject poverty.”
“If my attorneys aren’t feeding me a line of bullshit, within the next two weeks, I’m going to have my money, my first installment check from my dad’s mesothelioma death. It’s going to be enough to make a new life for myself and get me out of here, out of this fucked up shit hole town and away from all these jokers and thieves.”
As Bob and I leave the homeless village, we see Joe Baretta again. He tells us he will not be living on the street for long. His smile and clear eyes instill confidence that he will accomplish his goal.
“I was in sports and competitiveness all my life, and to me, you’re not going to beat me. I’m going to, I’m always going to pick it up and come after you. I’m gonna win eventually. We don’t give up. Just don’t give up.”
For the security guard, optimism is more difficult to summon.
“They (the police) know me. I’m all over town for the past three years,” he says and pauses before speaking again. “I’ve never been in one place where so many people knew me and I didn’t want to know so many people.”
Brian Bahouth has been a public media reporter since 1996. Click the donate button to support his work.