After surviving what he calls one of the “roughest winters in years”, with police repeatedly uprooting encampments along the Truckee River where he was living, worsening pneumonia and congestive heart failure, Kenneth Norton, known as Fuzz, suffered a debilitating stroke.
The near-death experience happened in late May shortly after police took a photo of him holding up a 24-hour notice to leave sign, since he didn’t have I.D at the time.
Three months later, although still hobbled and walking with difficulty with a cane, his body tilting and heaving, lacking balance, his fortunes are on the upswing again, thanks to Lisa Lee, formerly homeless herself, and now a case manager at Hopes.
Lisa Lee to the Rescue
Fuzz found out about Nevada Hopes after they did outreach along the river, bringing food and offering services to dozens of people, many of them with pets, living in several encampments of loosely congregated tents.
“I got prescriptions here,” he said after a recent doctor’s visit. “They are putting me in occupational therapy and physical therapy for my stroke. I get regular doctor visits. People here are extraordinary. They just go above and beyond."
Forced Down the River
“Lisa also helped me get my ID back, took me to the DMV, she even paid for it. It had expired from 12 years ago. I didn’t know what to do, how it would work. It’s scary when you don’t know what to do anymore.”
Over the past year, Fuzz and the friends he had been living with have been forced further and further down the trail along the Truckee River. Fuzz has a dog, which prevents him from staying at Reno’s shelters. “I got a dog, it’s a pit, and I can’t be anywhere near the shelter with my dog,” he says before explaining how difficult living by the river has been.
“Police pushed us all the way out to the end of the trail almost into Storey County. But Storey County doesn’t want us either. We just want the struggle to stop. We don’t want to go further out there. We can’t. There’s people with missing toes out there. There’s people with infections. They can’t get the medical attention they need out there. Older people get sick sleeping on the river. It’s just too far from everything.”
Big Loaders, Bobcats and Bike Trails Against the Homeless
Fuzz says their previous camping spots had been hidden but that changed in the past year.
“These people working for the government chopped down all the trees. Everywhere we were camping, they had big loaders and big Bobcats with these cutters, and they tore down all the bushes, they cut down all the trees, natural habitats, anything where any of us were living. They told us to move on. They were just throwing our stuff away or burying it, throwing dirt on top of it. They didn’t want us there anymore. We really have nowhere else to go. There’s plenty of room out there. We don’t harass people. We’re just trying to survive.”
Fuzz who has been able to start riding his bike again, said it was taking him over an hour and a half from his last camping spot to make it to downtown Reno. He says he’s extremely grateful that Lee, his case worker, picked him up and dropped him back off in his car. When we met him, he was thinking about what his friends would be making for dinner. He says police activity hasn’t been so bad recently.
But he worries about the continued expansion of the Tahoe Pyramid Bikeway. “They’re cutting more and more, making it all wide open,” he said. “Natural habitat for owls is being cut down. They’re cutting down healthy vegetation, erosion protection. There’s very few places left where you camp without being seen. We’re just trying to keep out of the eye of the public.”
Legal Camping and Tiny Homes
Fuzz says he believes somewhere in the area camping should be legal.
“As long as you keep a clean area, no litter or trash running around, it should be legal,” he said. “Most of us take our own trash out. We don’t bury it or burn it. Even after my stroke, I’ll get on my bike and put my trailer behind and haul bags of trash. But the way it is now, you can catch a felony for camping in Washoe County, just because of priors and how many times you’ve been arrested before.“
He’s also interested in what he calls all the current “chatter” about tiny homes.
“It would be great,” he said. “I really hope it happens. It would be a good change for all of us if we could live in them. It would give us a much better chance to get going again. Most people just want a new start, a step up. Somewhere along our lives, we went the wrong way. Something happened to where we can’t get back to a good place by ourselves. We need a little help. There would be less mosquitoes when it’s hot. Tiny homes would be warmer at night. The cold air at night gets to people. Soon as the sun goes down, sicknesses pop in. Everyone starts coughing. People would be healthier. It would help us a lot. There’s a couple people out there right now with kids. That’s just crazy. They’re struggling so hard. I don’t want to see cops messing with people like that. They’ll take away their kids. ”
He thinks Sparks could also use a homeless shelter, public shower stalls and food kitchen. “There’s tons of homeless out here too,” he said.
Fuzz who has had to deal with a lot of pain, including not seeing two estranged children for years, is now struggling with not being able to skateboard, his one pure escape for most of his life.
“I’m always falling. I have no equilibrium. I can’t skate. I can’t even sit on a skateboard, which really sucks. Skateboarding was my life. It makes me feel less. I am going to have to find something else to feel this void. I ‘m trying to get rehabilitation. I’m trying to get off the streets,” he said.
A Message to All
Before walking back to Lee’s car the day of our interview to return to his “state of the art” tent, a prized possession donated by tattoo artist and another local activist, Jay Dee Skinner, Fuzz has a message for those who look down on the homeless or who harass them, or criticize them, or don’t want them around.
“We’re not trying to harm anybody. We really aren’t. We are not inflicting anything upon anyone else. We are just trying to get over our woes,” he said as he gingerly grabbed his cane.