Social: The Concerned Citizens

(Featured image courtesy Our Town Reno, taken by Jose Olivares.)

Our Town Reno sprang up out of almost nothing in January of 2016 as a multimedia street reporting project. Months later, Our Town Reno is successfully giving a voice to the homeless and displaced populations of Reno as the city moves through its gentrification.

We met with Jose Olivares, one of the masterminds behind Our Town Reno, to discuss what the project is, what it does, and where it’s going.

Below is that transcribed interview:


One Truckee River: Can you state your role with Our Town Reno and the project’s background?

Our Town Reno’s Jose Olivares: I helped start the project Our Town Reno along with (University of Nevada, Reno) Professor Nico Colombant and another grad student in the philosophy department. Unfortunately the grad student had to, with other obligations, drop from it, but Nico and I have kept it going.
What Our Town Reno tries to do is give a voice to homeless people. We do this because we recognize that usually the people who get the megaphone are the PR representatives of the city or the police department. Usually people who are affected by a lot of change and a lot of policy issues in the city are homeless folks, and they usually don’t get to express themselves in the media. So we decided to start this multimedia project.
It’s really cool because we have … a lot of people contributing to Our Town Reno, so it’s a lot of students, other professors — some in the philosophy department, community members, and it centers around homelessness and gentrification, and what it means for these people and trying to push forward their stories and giving a voice to the voiceless. Super cliche, but yeah.

One Truckee River: We’ve read on the website, and you’ve mentioned it yourself, that you guys are basically a bunch of ‘concerned citizens.’ Would you say that this whole project is advocacy journalism?

Olivares: (Our Town Reno) is not really a news website. It’s more of a website that really just tries to give a voice to these people. I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily an advocacy group, it’s more of a website that acts like a medium to communicate between the community and the homeless folks (who are also members of the community, but they don’t necessarily get to express themselves as much).
We also try to generate discussion along with some of our posts. Some of the comments we get are very interesting interactions or they can generate interesting discussion in society. That’s more what we do: try to generate discussion and try to generate critical thought of who’s being affected by this and what’s going on.

One Truckee River: When Our Town Reno first started, did it start with a class at UNR? Or was it just a brainchild of you talking?

Olivares: I wrote an article about homelessness last fall, and it reached a pretty wide audience, which is awesome. Even (City of Reno) Mayor Schieve tweeted at me, which is pretty cool. And Nico was starting to work on a documentary about homelessness. Since then we crossed paths and we started talking. We thought this would be a really cool idea. Chris, who was with the project — his thesis is on the philosophy of housing and homelessness.
So we put our minds together and started this website. We already had content; a lot of other students had done content, so Nico put that on the website to start off. I had some content, Nico had some content, so we started like that and since then it’s just continued to grow.

One Truckee River: When you’re going out and getting these photos, how are you approaching people and getting these stories?

Olivares: It kind of varies. With most of the Instagram photos, Nico takes those, and he takes those as street photography as he’s driving by…. A lot of the portraits and a lot of these picture stories we have, it depends on each person and what their process is.
Sometimes I’ll go out and walk around Fourth Street and just talk to a bunch of people and ask them to take pictures, and I’ll do a quick 15-20 minute interview with them. Usually people are very receptive to that. They want to be heard; they want to tell their stories. You hear some super depressing things, but you also get to see a lot of optimism and a lot of people who are very positive and looking to the future and very happy to talk with you.
It depends on each specific person that contributes to the website and how they approach it, but for me personally, you just go up and talk to them. ‘Hey, nice to see you. How are you doing?’ And they see with my camera and you just start a dialogue and ask them for a picture and for a quick interview. People are pretty open to it usually.

One Truckee River: What’s an example of a really powerful story you’ve heard?

Angela Joyce, 19, and her dog, Rose. Angela has been homeless for 12 years. Photo courtesy Our Town Reno, by Jose Olivares.

Olivares: I came upon this by chance. I was leaving the Eddy House, which is close to Downtown. They help homeless youth. I was taking pictures there for another project that my friend asked me to help out with.
As I was leaving, this girl (Angela Joyce) was sitting on the sidewalk with her dog (Rose), and she said, ‘Oh, why are you taking pictures of the Eddy House?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m doing this and that.’
We started talking. She’s 19-years-old and she’s been homeless for many years. The reason she’s been homeless is because she’s been running away from home and she lived in a very abusive home and she gets really bad panic attacks. So her dog is a service dog. Whenever she starts having panic attacks, she starts to black out. The dog wraps the leash around the girl and pins her to the ground so she doesn’t walk out in traffic. It was really intense to see this, but it’s also really depressing to see that she’s homeless. She told me she was literally sleeping on a plastic chair every night.
So I think that’s been one of the most impactful stories that I’ve heard. To see someone so young is kind of important. . . . A lot of the common discourses around homelessness from people who are not necessarily familiar with the topic is that ‘They did this to themselves,’ ‘Why are they alcoholics?’ (or) ‘They’re choosing to live on the street.’ But for such a young woman to be in this situation, it’s like she’s a victim of her own circumstance. It kind of humanizes it and shows the broader picture of society and how she’s a victim of her circumstance.

One Truckee River: How would you define where Reno is at with homelessness? The city’s response to it, etc.

Olivares: I think it’s wonderful how the city is starting to grow, and it’s starting to bring in new businesses and it’s starting to expand economically and socially. But the only problem is we have to see the result of what is happening.

Photo by Lynda Nelson.
Members of the homeless community sleeping alongside the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Lynda Nelson.

There have been laws put in place, and there have been regulations put in place, and there have been actions by the city and by the police and by the state (not the state as in the state of Nevada but just the state) that push homeless people out or push them away or limit them without necessarily helping them in order for the continuous economic growth. There’ve been city ordinances that have forced people to expand out of their tent cities; there have been policemen that have gone in and pushed people away from different parts of the city, not just in Reno but in Sparks as well, in order for it to look nicer for a lot of the wealthier folks.
People call this gentrification and it’s true. It’s very apparent and you do hear a lot of criticism of the city by homeless folks as well. I think it’s important to look at what other places in the country are doing.
If we look at Utah, for example, they’re doing phenomenal work with homelessness. Some media outlets have reported that they’ve gotten rid of 90% of their homelessness. Other media outlets have said that it’s near 70%, which is still a phenomenal number. It’s important to take those models and apply them to Reno. Reno is a growing city, so we have the resources and the ability to provide a model such as what Utah is doing, which is the housing first model. They just give homes to homeless people before tackling mental health or addiction problems, which can perpetuate homeless problems.
From what I’ve heard is that there is a lack of resources in Reno, but the cool thing about Reno is that there are a lot of really wonderful activists and a lot of wonderful people who are on the ground really just trying to help homeless folks out. They have really good relationships with them, and they bring them food almost every day. It’s really cool to see how there’s this dichotomy between the activists who are really helping and the state who is really helping the City of Reno, but not necessarily homeless folks in Reno.

One Truckee River: Speaking of those activists and organizations, have you been able to connect with any of them, for example Crossroads or HOPES or even city officials?

Olivares: Yeah, it’s been a really wonderful discussion that’s been reaching a lot of people in Reno. From (City of Reno Councilmember) David Bobzien and (Mayor) Hillary Schieve and all these really cool city officials, to the activists at RISE, who are very active and very much on the ground doing some awesome work (with) homeless people themselves. We’re facilitating this communication across the board, which has been really cool.
For a lot of the stories that have been published on Our Town Reno, and a lot of the stories that are shared, we’ve gotten to talk with city officials and stuff. We also sometimes do profiles on different activists in town who help out homelessness. We did this profile on this guy who helps out homeless youth; we’re doing a profile on people who help out with RISE. Just a lot of really cool communication in that regard.

One Truckee River: Where do you see Our Town Reno going? What are your hopes for long-term lasting effects?

Olivares: I think it’s really cool to have seen how so many people have been not just interested in reading the stories, but contributing to Our Town Reno as well. We do accept submissions by anybody who wants to report on this issue or talk about it or generate a discussion. Seeing this has been really cool, especially (since) we’ve been hearing a lot of really positive responses from the activists as well, who also contribute their own comments and responses. I think it’s just going to continue to grow with all the people are contributing to it, whether they be students or members of the community,
I think it’s going to continue to grow in this regard and really try to spread and continue to generate these discussions, especially as Reno continues to grow. As we’ve been seeing these past few days, there’s some big plans for Reno.

One Truckee River: With this recent Downtown makeover or Sparks’ recent enforcement of rules on camping along the river — is it concerning? What are your thoughts?

Olivares: It’s very much concerning to see this, but I think with all this growth, there’s a lot of room for positive change as well. Though we are very critical of a lot of the actions that have been done that are perpetuated as well, we also hope that there will be effective measures taken to combat homelessness and really treat homelessness in a humane way.
We see all this money and all this capital and all these resources and everything. Why not apply some of that to homelessness as well? So though it’s really cool to see this city growing and it’s going to be really cool for the city and for society, we do have to look at the effects of it and what these people who are coming into Reno are going to be doing. Are they going to be trying to help the homeless situation or are they going to be negatively affecting it?
Honestly, from what we’ve seen in the past, we’re not too optimistic that they’re necessarily going to be helping, but there’s still a glimmer of hope in me that there will be some positive changes coming to it.