Wendy Wiglesworth has a distinct aura about her as she presses out her wet, wavy hair by a small campfire on a recent morning, next to the Truckee River near the Sparks/Reno line, across from the Grand Sierra Resort in the middle of a tent city mostly hidden by thick trees and foliage.
Moods lift, and ears perk up as Wendy’s musical, raspy voice fills the crackling air with salty empathy and critiques of the world around her.
Wendy, a Washoe High School graduate from the 1990s, and a former salon owner, now 42 and living in a tent along the river, says she helps “lost boys of all ages, old and young,” cope with life on the “outside” as she calls it. “Everybody is somebody, everybody came from somewhere,” she says, a warm oatmeal bowl by her side.
On The Other Side
“I used to donate haircuts when I owned a salon, now I’m on the other side but I prefer it this way. There’s actually less drama. Out here, you appreciate everything. I can probably sleep better than a lot of people doing the 9 to 5. At the end of the day, I am ok with everything. I’m not trying to be something that someone else wants me to be. I’m not working so I can just keep up with bills, and not have time to enjoy life because I am working so much. We stay busy just keeping camp, figuring out our next meals, and fixing the tent. There’s bad days just like inside. We also have to keep an eye out for vigilantes who sometimes go through our belongings and bust everything up. We don’t know how long we will be allowed to stay. But I still like it better here.”
Why Not Have Inner City Camping?
Wendy would like the city of Reno to allow inner city camping. “It should be just like an RV park with tents allowed. If you have just a few rules, there’s no reason it couldn’t work.”
But right now, she says, tent cities keep getting pushed further and further away from Reno. “Is today the day we’re going to have to pack up everything and move?” she wonders. “Where are we going to move? How are we going to move all our stuff?”
Her Current Spot
“It’s nice here. You can leave your stuff inside or next to your tent. There’s people around, it’s not far to go to the GSR to charge your phone, or Walmart, or Quik Stop. Sometimes if I have a dollar, I’ll go gamble, sometimes I’ll win five, cash it out and go buy cigarettes. It’s a tradeoff being further from downtown Reno but there are advantages as well.”
One neighbor, who goes by Tarzan, has set up a bike shop for the homeless and cyclists coming down the riverside path. Another neighbor, a woman helps other campers use lavender to deal with bugs. “There are also a lot of spiritual and metaphysical people,” she says.
Others from the tent city work day labor jobs. They keep each other company when they’re back together by the river.
“People don’t pretend they’re something they’re not here. As campers, my neighbors are great here. They’re being who they are. They’re not lying. Some people do leave all their stuff or trash behind and that’s not good, but most people here are good people. We’re normal people.”
Visits from Police
Wendy says there’s no telling how long this camping situation will last. They get regular visits from police and city workers recommending different services, offering water and sometimes help with trash, but the underlying message is that they shouldn’t be there.
“They keep wanting to push us further away from Reno into Sparks. They say if we go by the Alamo casino they won’t bug us. Since they keep pushing us away from Reno, it sends people hiding in residential areas in Reno, like behind schools. That could freak some parents out, if they see a homeless person in the morning on their way to school, but remember it could be someone’s dad or brother pushing that cart. They’re just trying to live too.”
Pushed Further and Further from Reno's Downtown
Wendy once started building a brick entranceway with steps in another spot she previously kept underneath a bridge on Sutro street, but got booted out from there. Most recently, she was camping on what she though was someone’s private property, who said he didn’t mind, but it turned out to be airport property, so she was forced out from there as well.
“Sometimes, I really don’t get it. I’s not like we are terrorists, planning a homeless takeover. We’re still a part of Reno. Don’t be embarrassed by us. We’re not going to go away. A lot of us don’t want to live on the inside. A lot of us love it out here,” she says.
Frustrations With Services
“When the cops come out with Catholic Charities and the Volunteers of America, they say, well you should really check out the resources. But then when you start going, a lot of them want you to get hooked up with Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, and take the brain meds. If you don’t need them, or you don’t want them, then you’re not sure what to do. There’s other problems with the help. People with animals can’t go into shelters or even the overflow. They say the SPCA is offering a program to help board their animals until after they get on their feet. But I’ve heard the SPCA is going to give you a bill for boarding. And anyway, pets is what keeps a lot of people going, so why would I separate from my pet and have to pay for that? Couples you can’t go together. If you’re not a vet or go to Mental Health Services, you wonder will I really get housing through their resources?”
There is persistent frustration in Wendy’s voice about how the programs are designed, how they make most people scared, and how most of the housing options in Reno are worse than living outside.
Avoiding Roach Coach
“If you’re inside the shelter with one of their programs, you can only have limited visitors, there’s checks on them, you can’t have overnight guests, the rules just can be too much. Everybody that’s out here is so used to being around others, and a group mentality. Now you’re inside, lonely, and bored, so you go back outside, and then mess up the whole process to get housing. Inside and alone can be much worse than outside and with people. And then, some of the cheaper housing options in town, the motels and weeklies are really roach coach. I’d rather stay outside and be irritated by spiders, than inside and be worrying about bed bugs and cockroaches. It’s foul in some of those places. I understand people want people to be inside, but putting them with roaches and cockroaches is not ok.”
Stay Humble Reno
She says current changes in Reno keep her on edge.
“I don’t know if I'm scared or excited. Artown Reno is making it more art focused instead of the gambling and hookers, that’s cool. Small business owners look different, they are fully tatted now, that’s awesome too. But I don’t want Reno to get carried away with itself either thinking that it’s too cool for this or that. Or that Reno is embarrassed by people like us. I used to make jewelry. There’s people down here that make a lot of cool things. One girl here was painting rocks. People do rock art. You also have to watch out if we all start getting priced out. I love local businesses that have made it. But stay humble.”
Challenges and Donations
Even though she likes living by the river, Wendy faces plenty of challenges. She recently broke her wrist and arm falling on some bike parts, requiring “needles, screws, and stuff”. She was due to start therapy, so she was looking for ways to get bus passes to get there.
Food and survival items are not always easy to obtain, so she says donations from those who care about her plight are always appreciated.
Very Grateful for Help
“The other day, these ladies gave us tarps, which was awesome. There was a couple that gave us fried chicken once. Downtown it is easier to get food than here. Amber (Dobson) always gives out food downtown. I love Amber. She’s awesome. If anyone wants to come by and say hi, and donate, ice is always good during the summer, so is coffee, or dog food and pet leashes, bike locks, and clean blankets. We can always use old tents too. We really are very grateful to those who help.“
She says batteries are always needed as well, AA and AAA, and bug spray, especially when it’s been raining like the past few days. After the interview, a neighbor passed around chocolate for everyone to share. After the interview, a neighbor passed around chocolate for everyone to share.
Interview and Photos for Our Town Reno, August 2016, along the Truckee River, near the Reno/Sparks line.