Story and Photos by Jose Olivares for Our Town Reno
Talking About Living in a Motel
Larry’s determination propelled his quick paces as he moved to stand in front of the audience. The crowd sitting in the classroom watched him intently, admiring the tattoos on his arms and his blonde moustache. They leaned in to hear what he would say.
As fluorescent classroom lights shone down, Larry described how he currently works almost 80 hours per week, struggling to care for his wife and son. The family of three are homeless in Reno and are currently staying in a weekly motel.
“We’re not all scumbags and dope fiends,” Larry said, referring to the commonly-held stereotype of homeless individuals.
A Learning Experience
Over 120 community members and social work students occupied the classroom to learn of the homeless situation in northern Nevada.
The panel was made up of Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus, ACTIONN’s Aria Overli, the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality’s Ben Castro, Volunteers of America’s Pat Cashell and Larry. Each panelist took a few minutes to introduce themselves, explain their approach to homelessness and later answered any questions from the audience.
Day to Day Struggles
Larry was the last panelist to speak about homelessness and the day-to-day struggle he encounters to help his wife caring for their young son. He recounted to the audience stories when the three of them were living in the streets.
Larry would hardly ever sleep, he said, staying awake to care for his family. During the day, Larry would leave his wife and son with a fellow, trustworthy homeless friend when looking for a job. Finding a job was a challenge, since there was no way for him to prepare for any prospective job interviews.
“How do you stay clean for a job interview?” he asked the audience.
Camaraderie on the Streets
As his story progressed, he told the audience of the camaraderie he experienced while living on the streets. He also expressed frustration at his current situation living in a weekly motel room. Emotions betrayed him at one point when speaking of people’s perceptions of homeless individuals.
“We’re human beings, stop looking at us like we’re not,” Larry said. Tears began to swell in his eyes and his voice wavered and dropped slightly. “I am a human being. My wife is a human being. My son is a human being.”
Help Each Other
The other panelists spoke passionately of their work in regards to homelessness, and were very critical of those not willing to help the situation.
Ben Castro spoke of Living Room, a new project RISE is taking on to provide housing for homeless individuals. Aria Overli spoke of Reno’s criminalization of homelessness and the need for discrimination to end. Pat Cashell shared his own, personal story, and spoke of his work as the regional director of Volunteers of America, the organization running the homeless shelters in town. Re-elected councilwoman Jenny Brekhus spoke of governmental approaches to fight homelessness and proposed public-private partnerships to help approach improvements.
Paul Lenart and Escenthio Marigny both raised their hands at differing times during the discussion and pointed to the culprit causing homelessness.
“We spent most of the history in our species taking care of each other,” Lenart said, alluding to the idea that humans have not always let their fellow person fall by the wayside. Later on in the evening, he muttered to me under his breath: “The whole commodity model is the problem.”
Marigny echoed some of these sentiments pointing to the “elephant in the room” that is “neoliberalism.”
At the end of the event, audience members approached the panelists, asking them for more information regarding their specific work or how to get involved with their organizations. Many people also approached Larry, his wife and their son, looking to shake their hands, and thanking Larry for his words.
The Next Generation
“I’m glad that a lot of young people were here,” Larry told me, referring to the large number of social work students who attended.
He and his wife, although struggling to live in the weekly, are incredibly proud of their young son.
“My son is on the honor roll,” Larry proudly boasted. “He gets straight As regardless.”