The city of Reno, Nevada, recently spent $10,000 sprucing up a park near its National Bowling Stadium—which, yes, is a real thing and also is exactly what you’re imagining.

Labeled a “blight mitigation project,” the park remodel involved putting big rocks in planters, adding spiky metal trim, and removing nearly 70 benches. All three measures were explicitly designed to ward off homeless people.

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The effect is less blight mitigation and more futuristic dystopia, but hey, maybe that’s what Reno likes.

That might be a fairly standard story about city government except for one key detail:

The City of Reno has an ordinance that makes it illegal to sit or lie on a public sidewalk in the downtown area. The city also makes it illegal for anyone to sleep in a park. Sleeping in a park is considered “camping” and it is illegal to do so without a permit.

The city code says, “No person shall sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair, stool or any other object placed upon a public sidewalk in the Downtown Reno Regional Center” because it “contributes to undermining the essential economic vitality of this area.”

So it’s a crime to sit on the ground, but the benches are gone. It would be funny were it not so sad.

Reno has effectively criminalized homelessness—or, for that matter, just hanging out while not actively standing or walking.

Unfortunately, Reno is far from the only city to do this sort of thing. More than 50 major cities have enacted some variation of a ban on public feeding of the homeless in recent years, while others have banned sleeping outdoors or even simply using a blanket outside.

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Osceola County, FL spent more than $5 million to jail just 37 homeless people for victimless “crimes” like sleeping in public. For that kind of cash, they could have purchased each homeless person a $135,000 house with no mortgage!

Grappling with homelessness is no easy task for city governments, to be sure. But criminalizing their very existence is not an acceptable solution.

Reno made sitting on the ground a crime. Then they took away the benches. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Rare, weekend editor at The Week, and a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can find more of her work at or follow her on Twitter @bonniekristian
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