Our Town Reno addresses homelessness in the midst of Reno’s rebranding
Corey McDowell is a 28-year-old graduate student in the University of Nevada, Reno’s social work program. But 11 years ago, she was a homeless 17-year-old high school student, squatting in decrepit basements and sleeping on friends’ couches.
McDowell’s story is featured in Invisible Girl, a documentary created by Our Town Reno, a citizen journalism project intended to highlight issues surrounding homelessness and gentrification in Reno. Citizen journalism refers to media created and produced by the general public, published in nontraditional outlets such as blogs, zines or social media. Organized by Nico Colombant, a digital media lecturer at UNR, Our Town Reno publishes these types of stories submitted by locals, including students, and also documents the stories of homeless people through video, audio and photography.
McDowell reached out to Our Town Reno while she was interning at the Eddy House, a local nonprofit that aids homeless youth through its YOUth Resource Center. In spring 2015, the Eddy House put on an event called This Is Homelessness, in which participants lived on the streets for 48 hours to learn what it’s like to be homeless. McDowell hoped that Our Town Reno could bring media attention to the cause, and Colombant learned that McDowell had experienced homelessness firsthand.
Kicked out of her house at 17, McDowell was too close to age 18 to file for emancipation, and she quickly learned how different life was outside of her “suburban, middle-class America” upbringing.
“There was some mental illness in the home, so the family dynamics were skewed because of that,” she said of the circumstances that led to her leaving. “That’s hard to see when you’re a kid. You don’t know what’s going on, especially if it’s undiagnosed.”
School became her stability. McDowell said she used her high school locker as a closet and found temporary housing wherever she could. Doing well in school meant that she wouldn’t draw attention to herself as a homeless youth, she reasoned.
It was hard, she said, “because at that age, you don’t want to stand out. I didn’t want to be seen as someone who needed services because I was going to school. I was taking care of myself. I thought that was the important thing. But that included putting myself into some really dangerous situations. … I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was naive and vulnerable, and things turned out OK for me. But in many cases, it doesn’t.”A world away
Her experiences on the street were eye-opening.
“I went completely out of my culture,” she said. “I only went five blocks downtown, where I was staying in a basement with other kids who were runaways or homeless. But five blocks away was so different, it may have well been another country. I saw things I’d never seen before. I recognized things in the people in my community that I would have been so blind for.”
Despite her circumstances, McDowell’s academic achievements enabled her to go on to Truckee Meadows Community College and UNR, where she got a bachelor’s degree in social work. Using the counseling and resource services at UNR helped her come to terms with what she had faced. She said that as an adult, her relationship with her family is much stronger than it was. And while she has other professional interests beyond aiding homeless youth, that will always be a personal passion of hers.
“I was able to go from a life that, at that point, statistically, made me less capable,” she said. “And I was able to work through that and move on and become a more productive member of society and deal with the problems that are associated with homelessness as a youth.”Identity politics
Part of addressing homelessness is identifying the factors that lead to homelessness. This is where community journalism plays a role, said Colombant, especially as Reno grapples with the “gentrification vs. rebranding” debate.
To him, there’s not a huge difference between those words.
“Gentrification is a really loaded term,” said Colombant. “I’m all for it when you clean up a sidewalk, but when you’re redoing a sidewalk and your intent is to displace people from low-income housing, if it’s part of a plan to displace people, then I think we should raise flags, and I feel that’s a storyteller’s purpose, a journalist’s purpose, to raise flags when there are storm clouds ahead before they hit.”
He sees Our Town Reno as part of that process. He cites the recent removal of benches at the City Center bus station as an example of how collaborative, community journalism can raise awareness.
“It started with an activist who did a group email about it, then we reported on it, and This Is Reno picked it up and interviewed City Council. And then the Reno Gazette-Journal did a story.”
All of the media Our Town Reno produces is free to view through its website, ourtownreno.com, and on Facebook and Instagram. Social media enables Our Town Reno to create and share stories for free, and Colombant said that’s how most people are able to learn about their projects and the people profiled.
“I see citizen journalism as a way to do journalism from the bottom up and not just always go to the talking heads or public information officer or spokesperson,” said Our Town Reno co-founder Jose Olivares. (Full disclosure: Olivares is an RN&R contributor.) “It’s a valuable form of journalism that can bring to light more stories that are more real to people, that can hopefully even bring change. We tell stories that haven’t been told by traditional media, as a way to get to people who are on the ground, who are experiencing the issues that we are writing about.”
This is what distinguishes Our Town Reno from other media.
“We don’t talk to City Council, we don’t talk to the police,” said Colombant. “We talk to the affected person.”
Recently, while taking his child to school, Colombant noticed a homeless man sleeping on the porch of a condemned building. He asked Olivares to speak to the man, whose name is Doug. Olivares wrote a story and put it on Our Town Reno’s social channels, where it attracted the attention of a local group that aids homeless veterans. The group was able to find an apartment for Doug. This process demonstrates the real impact of citizen journalism, Colombant said.
Colombant welcomes the rebrand in Reno—and even said that the city is a little overdue for it—but that its constituents need to reflect on what that means.
“What is the rebrand?” he asked. “There is a little bit of schizophrenia to Reno, and that’s great, that’s part of its appeal, but what direction was Reno heading when they tore down the Mapes Hotel? What is that saying about Reno? History is important. … [The rebranding] has to be done very carefully. This is not Tesla’s town. This is not a certain casino’s town. It’s our town. It’s a town for hipsters and people who work at the hospital and who work at the casino and people who don’t fit into any of those boxes.”
Reno has the choice, Colombant said, to be a city that helps its disenfranchised—or ignores them.
“The Biggest Little City should be a caring Biggest Little City,” he said. “We’re a community that is so special, so unique, so geographically distinct here in the high desert. I feel we can do things differently.”