ELKO — Between the railroad tracks and Idaho street, and behind Toki Ona, out of sight from the road, are two blackened clearings, about 300 yards apart.

Glass bottles and unburned trash lay strewn across the ground. Tents dot the landscape. Some are tarps over sagebrush, held up with a little bit of rope. Some look like they’ve come out of an outdoors catalog.

A man, probably in his 30s, ducks out of his tent. He doesn’t look homeless; with a well-trimmed Vandyke beard and a clean shirt, he looks like he could own his own house. He calls hello to the visitors to the transient camp behind the railroad tracks.

A young man, camping near the railroad tracks, started one of these fires when he threw his cigarette out of his tent. The brown, dried grasses and the sagebrush went up in bitter smelling smoke.

“The public doesn’t know what’s going on,” Josh Carson, the deputy fire marshal, said, motioning to the hidden tents.

The precipitation for the year, despite yesterday’s rainfall, has been very low and conditions are very dry, he said.

“All it takes is one simple, little miscalculation or mistake,” Carson said. “And, it’ll be helped by the wind.”

Transients light cooking and warming fires, which can easily get out of control.

The problem of homelessness in Elko has come to a head in the past two years, he said, as the number of transients has increased. This year, especially, has seen an increase.

“People are coming out here with high hopes,” he said. “They’re trying to get a job with the mines.”

Housing for these hopeful souls is almost non-existent, especially before they have paying jobs, he said.

The increase in transients, both permanent and temporary, brings a series of challenges and potential risks for the city as a whole.

“(They’re) a concern for us and for the police,” Carson said.

Dangerous places

The transient camps are a risk because of the fires that are started in the camps or next to the tents, in addition to the incidentals like cigarettes and heating appliances and other open flames.

The fires lack permits as well as the proper pits and cleared areas to assure that a fire doesn’t make its surroundings — often, the backside of businesses on Idaho street — go up in flames.

Some of the transients who live down by the river are camped in incredibly hard to access areas for the fire engines and trucks, said Elko Fire Chief Matt Griego.

“Along the river is limited access for us,” he said. “Getting the trucks back there is difficult” and time-consuming.

Problems sans solutions

It’s only April, early in the season. Lesli Ellis, the public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, said it’s not even fire season yet.

But, it’s dry, as evidenced both by the fire on Tuesday, 50 miles north of Elko, and another fire Wednesday morning, near NYTC road.

The warming and cooking fires, while normally tolerated, are now too much of a danger, Griego said.

The homeless, however, have nowhere else to go other than to make other transient camps on the outskirts of town.

“The homeless will just be homeless somewhere else” if the police department arrests or forces them out, Police Chief Don Zumwalt said.

“It’s a public safety and fire and sanitary issue,” he said.

A public issue it may be, but it is also an issue of homelessness not being a crime.

“We can’t trample on their constitutional rights,” Zumwalt said.

The issue is a societal problem, he said.

“For now, Chief Griego is putting out the fires,” he said.

A matter of luck

Last December, Mark Olson, 57, died after his tent had caught fire. Elko police said they believed Olson  was in the tent when it caught fire, and he died from his injuries a few yards away.

Olson’s death may be an omen of what could happen.

“We’ve been lucky on a lot of them,” Carson said.

Responding to a brush fire at one of the transient camps, Griego found two homeless men who had been sleeping in their tents, unaware a fire may overtake them at any moment.

“They could be sleeping and not even know it’s coming,” Griego said.

(25) comments

belvin2
belvin2

Maybe a shallow draft boat, like a pontoon,With a pump to suck the water out of the Humbolt,with High pressure, might be an answer..

karenkarenn
karenkarenn

Well, where can we put them??? This article shows no solution to people who need a place to stay. Instead of depecting a terrible life for these people why not come up with a solution.

sweet_blue89801
sweet_blue89801

I already know that people are going to be upset with me but bums freak me out. They disgust me, when I was at work one day it was just me and my coworker and a bum walked in and asked us if we had money to give him. I could not believe that he would just walk in like that. When we told him no he got upset and he refused to leave. We told him that if he didn't leave we were going to call the cops. I'm sorry but mcdonalds will hire anybody.

dstanford
dstanford

Stop giving them money and clothing when they beg at the stop signs and they move on.
My grandpa once had a squirel problem because he would throw breadcrumbs off the porch so he could watch them. He started to complain about how they were taking over and how he couldn't get rid of them. Once he stopped feeding them they moved onto the next house that gave them free food.
If you feel sorry for them go to their camps and see the human waste and trash all around. It's unsafe and unsanitary.

stabeye
stabeye

we have elected officials whos job it is to adress these issues. when we have such the current squaulor and hopelessness of transient camps is real evidence that our elected officials have failed to live up to their promisis. I observe that they have plenty of to say about NDOW vBLM or forwst serrvice and recreationRather than tring to protedt their way of lif they should invite oghetf groups aand Dould there be a crisis of prioritie in the cuntiy's decision making prpsedc

dstanford
dstanford

Stabeye,
Not sure where you grew up but the idea that it is the governments job to take care of these issues is where society has failed. The governement is the representative of those who elect them. They are supposed to do what we the people ask them to do. Does that mean we tolerate this behavior by not forcing those who represent us to do something about it. I say if they truely want help there are plenty of services locally where transients can get help.

bunnypennyz
bunnypennyz

I agree with sweet-blue. Burger king is hiring and so is Dominoes. If they spent half as much time at a part time job instead of holding a sign, they'd be able to save up for a cheap weekly hotel, then get a better job and more clothes, etc. and then get an apartment. It's 5 bucks to take a shower at High Desert. Wash some clothes for $4 and fill out applications guys.

mommyof3
mommyof3

It's not our place to judge. We could easily all sit on our highhorse and point our fingers at the less fortunate. However, you never know what put them there. Are the a Vet that never got the treatment after coming home? Did they watch their family die in front of them and are not able to function in society anymore. Put yourselves in their shoes.

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

It's so easy for everyone to sit in judgement in good old Elko. As long as you live in your own little world and stay blind to reality. I am one of the loudest voices here about the shortage of affordable housing. For all we know, some of these folks might have a job but can't find an affordable home. Lord knows that you can't afford the rent here on McDonald's wages! It's not just the people you see holding signs that are living down there, I can tell you that from personal knowledge!

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

BUT having some experience with some of these campers, I can also tell you this, I suspect at least half of them are there because of addiction. Meth, alcohol and pills have a way of consuming some people to the point they'd rather live in a tent and even give up their own children than give up their drugs.

Choonzer
Choonzer

Homelessness is a complicated problem with many causes unrelated to laziness. The fact is, most of us who have never been there have resources which have helped us avoid it, such as decent mental & physical health, work skills, lack of serious addictions, and a support network. When hard times come, those who have none of these end up homeless. Getting somebody a minimum wage paycheck won't get them into an apartment in most areas, and not even a cheap motel here.

Choonzer
Choonzer

For those unable to work due to medical/mental health/addictions, there is very limited help available without money or insurance. For those who are permanently disabled by mental or physical ailments, the battle to get disability can last several years, if it's successful at all. Then they can sign up for low-income housing, and it's another 2-year wait. Once they're in housing, they'd better keep their mental health symptoms under control, or be evicted. But that's not a simple matter.

Choonzer
Choonzer

Unfortunately, people with mental illness tend to have poor organization--it's part of the condition--so medication doses and appointments are missed, bills are lost or left unpaid, important papers misplaced or misunderstood, etc. Or treatment may simply not work well, even with perfect participation.

What it boils down to, like mommyof3 and tricky0ff suggested, is that most homeless people have problems WAY beyond what a minimum wage paycheck will fix. That goes triple in Elko.

sweet_blue89801
sweet_blue89801

Choonzer, I do agree with you that some of the "bums" are mentally unstable or addicted to booz or drugs, but from what I can see that is a small chunk of them. You are making it sound like getting a min wage job isnt even an option for them. Why not? Yes it is hard for someone to make a living at fast food but I did it and I know a lot of people who do.

Choonzer
Choonzer

I'm not saying that work isn't an option for some, but most of the homeless individuals I've known personally (likely over 500 over the years, due to my profession) have issues which led them to be homeless in the first place, and keep them from getting or keeping jobs and rentals.

Let's assume a fast-food job pays about $8/hr. If you can squeeze 40 hours/week out of the place on a consistent basis, that will gross you $1280/month. That's with no benefits or sick time.

Choonzer
Choonzer

We'll assume a net of $1000/mo, in a high-stress, high-turnover job. Cheapest motel rents in Elko run about $900. Is it doable? A very resilient and high-functioning person would have real difficulty maintaining that for any length of time. But those folks wouldn't be likely to end up homeless to begin with, so that's not who we're talking about. But $1000/mo is plenty to disqualify you from Medicaid, if you have it. So how is a person with any medical needs better off in that scenario?

Bobmonger
Bobmonger

One name I haven't seen mentioned in all of this is Deacon Craig from the Catholic parish in Elko. The Deacon has been ministering to the homeless here for many years and could give the City and County some useful input on the issue. In a conversation I had with the Deacon some months ago, he described 55 homeless camps in the Elko area. Unfortunately the Deacon is retiring so the City of Elko will be losing his services. Who will take his place?

Bobmonger
Bobmonger

Incidentally, when I was employed by KENV-TV in the 90's we tried to run a series on the homeless in Elko. We counted 22 camps at that time. The story never aired because of pressures from the business community saying they would pull their advertisements if the story aired. I'd like to personally thank John Carpenter for that one.

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

Bobmonger- Thanks for your input. It makes a lot of sense because so many in the area are living in lala land tiptoeing thru the tulips pretending that just because they are doing well and all their buddies are doing well that people who are not either don't exist in Elko or they just aren't trying. Unfortunately those of us living in reality know better. And it makes sense that local business owners want to cover it up.

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

One major setback & good luck getting your head back above water. Add drug addiction, mental illness, bad credit history or even owning pets & you may as well plan on camping all year. Housing is over priced, even to buy & the housing available is getting slim unless you can afford $1,2,3k or more a month for rent/house payments. RV parks & hotels are full. My grandparents had a guy stop & ask to rent their RV.

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

The mines need to do what they did in the 90's and ante up for housing if they plan on bringing more people into Elko. I'm not talking free housing so don't get it twisted.

tricky0ff
tricky0ff

Check online at sites like craigslist and rubywantads and see how many families are looking for rentals. Where are these folks supposed to stay until they can get into something? Apartments have waiting lists. Buying takes time and isn't always an option for everyone. I know there's a serious stigma against apartments or trailer parks but something needs to be done and done soon and the snobs need to get over themselves.

Joshua
Joshua

I would like to introduce Joshua Tree Shelter to the discussion. I letter to the Editor followed shortly after this article ran in the paper. Joshua Tree is to be a shelter here in Elko for the homeless. Joshua is in fundraising efforts to secure a location. Providing a long term resource for homeless in Elko. The shelter will address the issues of metal health, substance abuse, joblessness. The Board of Directors is complied of amazing individuals, including Deacon Craig.

Joshua
Joshua

I welcome all to be part of the soultion for the homeless in our area and the challenges they face. Contact JoshuaTreeElkoNV@ gmail.com with how you can assist. Thank you

Mark's sister
Mark's sister

Mark, who died in fire, was homeless in Elko for 5 years. Yes he had an addiction problem. He had this problem because of physical pain he sustained from doing hard work and at one of his jobs he fell on rebar. He then had to have his lower spine then neck fused. Mark was an alcoholic who was clean for ten years until pain overtook him. He still worked between his binges.He was released from hospital with pneumonia day he died. Please write, ltlostwings@gmail.com if u knew him.Alaska Mark's sis

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