This past Saturday, the sun broke through days of steady rain, as volunteers and organizations served healthy, home cooked food to hundreds of people in need in the Reno community at the downtown shelter location, while others put away hangers after another successful “free market” where donated clothes, toiletries and comfort items found a new home.
Families and children were there both helping and receiving help. People talked to each other and ate together at tables. It wasn’t always clear who had come to volunteer and who was being helped. Some were doing both.
This is how Ben Castro envisioned it when in 2012 he helped launch the nonprofit RISE, the Reno Initiative for Shelter and Equality, a local hands-on grassroots initiative, which according to its website seeks “to cultivate a greater sense of dignity and humility” as well as “create a stronger community through the use of shared resources and mutual aid.”
Which such exemplary guiding principles, Our Town Reno wanted to find out more.
Where does the motivation come from?
It’s a bunch of people getting around a table and solving all the world’s problems. But when you get tired of petitioning, you get tired of voting, you get tired of writing letters, eventually with the limited effectiveness you get with that, you figure you know what, we’re just going to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.
Ultimately, some people call it a calling. I would just say it’s something that lives inside of you and that you can’t continue life without letting that out. We just have a desire to alleviate suffering and to bear witness to that.
How has RISE evolved over the years?
Making sure people get adequate and nutritious food is no longer our biggest obstacle. Now it’s about bringing awareness to the fact that we have a situation here and nobody really wants to tackle it. I think the whole strategy now is that ok there is really no one or perfect answer on how we deal with homelessness and extreme poverty. It’s a structural issue. It’s a systemic issue. But we believe that as long as more people are aware of the different factors that cause homelessness then together we might be able to start to alleviate that moving forward.
Is a better job market helping?
OK people are starting to get employed but when you’re looking at part-time minimum wage jobs you still can’t afford housing, you still can’t afford basic medical care, basic necessities. The real root issues are livable wages and affordable housing. Until we tackle that, we’re always going to have homeless issues.
With all the changes happening in Reno right now, are there new concerns?
Reno is starting to expand really heavily. There’s a lot of outside influence and a lot of outside investments that are moving into this town. I think it’s important for our leaders to demand something for the people who are coming into this town. Yes, we want your business. We want you to come here and employ our people. But at the same time we’re not going to bend over backwards just so you are going to come in and take advantage of all the tax havens or the resources we have here. One of our biggest resources are the locals and the people who live here.
Are there any big picture solutions out there?
Land trusts is something that’s coming up recently to where basically plots of land are reserved for a decent quality of life. There’s a lot of momentum behind tiny house villages which has a lot of potential as well if done right.
Really though, it’s a cultural problem. I think our society suffers from this very selfish drive. We shouldn’t be living in that civilization anymore. We’re more advanced than that now. I think our attitudes need to match our technology. There is no reason for there to be such deep poverty in this nation. There’s no justifiable reason for that.
Finally, what do you say to people who say the homeless are dirty, they’re addicts, they’re hurting tourism and new developments?
I wish people would imagine if they had to take everything they owned and walk around with that all day, and worry about where they are going to go to the bathroom or where they are going to sleep that night, not being harassed by other individuals or by law enforcement.
It gets really hard when you get down to that level. It’s really hard to get out of it, especially with this negative attitude that people have that somehow they deserve to be there and somehow they did this to themselves.
Most people understand how it could be them. Most people are living paycheck to paycheck. Most people are scared to death of being homeless. These people aren’t going out there robbing liquor stores. They’re not selling drugs. They’re not trying to break and enter into people’s houses. The people who are doing those crimes are the ones who are afraid to be homeless. Everybody down here would rather be homeless as opposed to hurt other people.
Note: Parts of the questions and answers for this interview were trimmed. The Interview was conducted in Reno in person on May 6, 2016.