City needs to act now before blight begins to spread
May 10, 2005
I was at a dinner party in San Francisco recently where I was introduced to a rather stuffy middle-aged man. Upon our introduction, he immediately asked, “Where do you live?”
“Carson City, Nevada,” I replied proudly.
“Oh! I have been there, it’s a white-trash town.” I felt like I had been slapped in the face. In fact, I was so surprised that I didn’t have anything to say, which for me is unusual.
When I returned to Carson City, I began to look around to see what had given him that impression. Then I realized that someone driving in from the north end of Highway 395 between Winnie Lane and Highway 50 could easily come to that conclusion. Over the last 10 years, mainstream businesses in that area have closed or moved, and they have been replaced by businesses that cater to the population living in the neighboring weekly/daily motels.
Viewing my hometown from a new point of view, one word came to mind: “Tenderloin.” In San Francisco, the Tenderloin is a section of the city that was once economically vibrant, and over time, the hotels went to a weekly/monthly format, Glide Memorial Church pioneered a soup kitchen/shelter in this area, and the business mix changed accordingly.
The only mainstream business left in the neighborhood is the San Francisco classic, Original Joe’s, and it has to constantly defend their business from the onslaught of vagrants, drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill in the neighborhood. In fact, I have seen the chef come flying out of the kitchen swinging a meat cleaver when a vagrant attempted to panhandle in the restaurant. It appears to me that we are fomenting a little Tenderloin in Carson City.
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Once an area goes in this direction, it takes years to turn it around. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsome has implemented, with the approval of the voters, a new program called “Care Not Cash.” Before the advent of this program, The city of San Francisco had been providing a cash stipend to homeless people in an amount of a little more than $400 per month. It became apparent to all but the hardcore homeless advocates that this money was being shot up the addict’s arm faster than a bullet.
Now, San Francisco pays a minimal stipend, and instead, the city bought or leased the monthly/weekly hotels, refurbished them, and shelter is being provided to those who want it. In addition, each hotel shelter has a social worker and substance abuse counselor on-site.
San Francisco is starting to see a reversal of the deterioration in the Tenderloin, and the intensity of panhandling is starting to abate throughout the city. Unfortunately, some of these folks, looking for greener pastures, have fled to the surrounding cities, and their vagrant population has grown.
Likewise, Reno has had a severe problem with vagrants in the downtown for years. I can remember walking down Virginia Street in the 1960s only to be harassed by catcalls, spitting and panhandling. Reno, to its credit, has been making inroads on this problem, which is great. The fallout is that some of these folks have moved to greener pastures- Carson City’s little Tenderloin.
I would encourage our city officials to focus on this situation and to take action before it worsens. Reversing this trend will take years, and the longer that the deterioration continues, the harder it will be to reverse.
Having worked with the Emergency Food and Medical Program in the early 1970s, I can appreciate the complexity of this issue. There are no easy answers. Historically, Carson City has been compassionate to the less fortunate, and we want to continue that tradition. A good example is the city’s recent allotment of $330,000 to Friends in Service Helping for its capital campaign.
At the same time, there are few people in this town who want to see city dollars spent on enabling self-destructive behavior and creating a center for criminal activity. A question for our city officials, and for all of us, is, how do we do balance these two values?
While there is no easy answer, the city does have options. The city could expand the Redevelopment District to include the Winnie Lane to Highway 50 stretch of Carson Street to the existing Redevelopment District. In 1986, when the district was formed, this area was vibrant; now, it is truly “blighted” and would qualify for addition to the district.
This is not a panacea, it is only a beginning. Law enforcement could be more proactive instead of reactive. For instance, cops walking the beat in Tenderloin areas have proven to abate crime. We know that much of the problem is related to drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. Treatment programs must be made readily available for those who want to become sober.
More important, each of us needs to examine our own attitude and think about what model of social services designed to serve this population will work best in Carson City. How do we balance our desire to be compassionate to the down and out with our desire to empower people, rather than enabling them on their self-destructive path?
n Linda Johnson is a 29-year resident of Carson City, wife, mother and retired attorney.