Are we in this together?

“Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life and death questions.” —Rebecca Solnit, from A Paradise Built In Hell

During the flood of 2017, I pondered those questions as more than 100 people rallied in the cold to help persuade those living on the banks of the Truckee River to relocate to higher ground or one of the emergency shelters run by the American Red Cross. The volunteers included professional staff from agencies with experience in homeless services, such as the City of Reno, City of Sparks, Washoe County Social Services, Volunteers of America, Northern NV HOPES, the Veterans Administration, Veterans Resource Center, Washoe County School District, and Catholic Charities—strengthened by scores of community volunteers recruited through social media.

Volunteers performed every task asked of them from shoveling snow and ice out of the parking lot so people could more easily board the vans for the Red Cross shelters to finding an empty box for a cat whose owner, a veteran, agreed to abandon his camp on the river and come inside. Police from Reno and Sparks teamed up with case managers to tromp the river banks, discovering hidden camps in unlikely places and doing their best to persuade people of the coming danger. Drivers from Crossroads, a sober living facility housing many formerly homeless people, went above and beyond to transport people from the river, helping people pack up their camps and delivering their sometimes considerable belongings to the Record Street facility for safekeeping.

It was a rough afternoon and not just because it was rainy, cold and icy. Some people refused to leave their spot under a bridge or a tent clearly in the flood plain. Some were stubborn, insisting the river wouldn’t flood, convinced the police agencies were using the storm as a ruse to clear the river camps. Others were paranoid and obviously mentally ill, squeezed into a dark bunker underground, more afraid of public view than the rising water. At times, the volunteers had no choice but to walk away.

And yet, there was a strong feeling of community in the small volunteer headquarters at the Record Street homeless complex. When the Crossroads van pulled up with people coming off the river, their belongings carefully stashed in large plastic bags, the volunteers welcomed the task of tagging and storing the property, and provided comfort and companionship to the people and their animals.

The experience compelled me to re-read my friend Rebecca Solnit’s essay on “How to survive a disaster.” Solnit opens with, “It’s a myth that our reactions to danger are fight or flight. There’s a third option often pursued—to gather for reassurance, protection, strength and insight.”

Solnit is fascinated by people’s behavior during a crisis, having documented earthquakes, hurricanes and major storms throughout the world. She observes that when “all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss.”

Solnit writes about the intense satisfaction people get from helping others during a disaster and the structural constraints of our society which divert us from acting so selflessly in our everyday lives. She maintains that disasters “demonstrate that the citizens any paradise requires—the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough—already exist.”

She’s right. But how do we maintain this level of compassion and collaboration post-disaster? How do we harness the genuine goodwill of our citizens to look deeper into the root causes of homelessness and find the political will to effectively address affordable housing, mental illness and addiction? Perhaps we have yet to discover who we really are.