Q: How does geography and student homelessness interact?
Well, geography is the study of place and why things are where they are and so by studying homelessness, as a geographer, I'm able to see how the homelessness problem is in Reno and then I'm able to connect it to the problems in other cities and hopefully provide solutions that will improve the situation in multiple areas.
Q: What sparked your interest to study homelessness?
Well, it actually started out as a course that I took during my undergrad here. It was a qualitative field methods course, but it was designed as a service learning course, so we were all focused on issues around homelessness. My group in particular was working with the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project, looking at youth homelessness and so through those experiences that I gained by being able to interact with the students, I just found a real passion and love for this topic and then when the semester ended I didn't want my research to stop, so that's what inspired me to start my master’s.
Q: You also come from Las Vegas. How would you compare the homelessness situation in Las Vegas and the homelessness situation right here in Reno?
In terms of pure numbers, I think that Las Vegas has a bigger homeless population, but given that Reno is a much smaller city, I think the problem is easier to spot in Reno because it's on a smaller scale …
Q: You did your homelessness research, when you were doing your undergrad, and it was part of a class, so what did you find out?
So for that project we were focusing on student homelessness at UNR and just trying to get a sense of the problem and when we first started it was really, it was a bit of a surprise because the UNR campus doesn't have any idea of the homeless population… That arises because there is not a department or an office on campus that tracks homelessness or student housing. And so when we were starting research for that class, we were starting with nothing essentially. We had no baseline. And so throughout the semester we were just interviewing people both on campus and in the community to try to figure out how the problem is understood both at the university and the local level
Q: At the local level, did you go to the downtown area at all or how did you find these homeless students if you didn't have that baseline? How did you go around and find these people?
Our project was working with the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project, which is basically a transition home for young women, 18 to 24, who don't have stable housing and so the director, Monica DupPa, was really helpful in helping us find students to interview.
Q: When you were doing your research and you encountered homeless students, where were they staying?
A lot of them will get together and form a group of 10 and then they'll chip in and buy a motel for the night. But I mean that's not stable … Another common thing that we saw was couch surfing … where they stay with one friend for like maybe a week and then they go to another friend because there's a huge stigma around being homeless and so these students don't want to admit that they're homeless, but they do want a place to stay.
Q: What are some of the reasons that they gave you as to why they were homeless?
A lot of them were escaping a bad situation at home, whether it be violence, abuse or a parent passed away. Or for most of them it was something in the home that was broken that they didn't want to be a part of anymore. It wasn't their fault in most cases.
Q: How were they feeling?
I mean, of course when you first leave home at 18, you're going to be scared and nervous, but you know, a lot of them expressed that they felt better staying on the streets or just wandering around the city than they felt being at home because their home environment was so abusive or violent or it was negative,
Q: Any safety issues that they shared with you, like whatever they go through as far as their safety is concerned?
Most of the people that I interviewed were young women and so of course there are safety issues. I mean a lot of them mentioned that they would ride the bus during the night hours because they were afraid to be alone in the city at night. So they would ride the bus all night and then they would sleep during the day when it was light out.
Q: So what are some of the conclusions that you drew from this particular research?
So from the undergraduate research, our main conclusion was just that there was no real knowledge of how pervasive the problem is and we don't really know how many students it's affecting, which is one reason why I was inspired to continue on to do my grad research here.
Q: What would you recommend as far as helping the homeless is concerned?
When we were doing our interviews, something that kept coming up over and over was that the city has temporary solutions in place. There's places where they can get food, there's shelters where they can go sleep for a night. There's places where they can shower. The Eddy House offers snacks, showers. I mean there's resources, but they're all temporary. So like there's no resource in place for them to be able to get housing and live by themselves. Like most of these students don't know how to budget, don't know how to grocery shop, don't know how to do laundry. So to expect them to live independently right now would just be insane. And so I think we need a program or we need to take steps to make them be able to be independent because right now we don't have such a program in place.
Q: What are your own plans currently?
So for my grad research, I'm hoping to get a better understanding of how pervasive the problem is here in Reno because as I said, we just don't have a baseline. And then going forward, I want to see how a student's housing, a student’s stable housing or lack thereof, influences their ability to feel like they belong both on campus and in the community at large.
Q: What concerns you personally as far as homelessness is concerned?
I guess the reason that I'm so inspired to do this research is that when I was doing the undergraduate research, most of our interviewees were young women, 18 to 24, and as a 22-year-old woman, I found it so easy to relate to them and then by hearing their stories it just made me realize that they're in this position through no fault of their own and so for one reason or another I could certainly end up in that same position and if I was, I would hope that somebody would be willing to help me.
The Our Town Reno documentary Invisible Girl (above) looked into life as a homeless student in Reno.
Q: What are some of the challenges or difficulties that you encountered was doing this particular research?
I mean, first of all, we didn't really know where to start. We started talking to Monica DuPea and then she suggested that we talked to financial aid to get an estimate of how many homeless students we have (at UNR). Then we talked to financial aid and they told us that they can't really send you information. They directed us to the police department here on campus. The police department said that there was no tracking of student homelessness, so for like a good month we were just sort of lost and it was like the snowball effect. We didn't really know where to go next. We thought we were going to be getting an answer and then the answer always seemed to be, well, we don't have one, try contacting this person
Q: Why do you think that is? I mean, don't you think the city or at least the school should know the demographics of their students?
I don't think it's fine the way it is, but the fact that the university doesn't keep any record of it is partially explained by the fact that if they did, then they would recognize that there is a problem and once you recognize that there's a problem, you have to start to fix it. And I don't think homelessness is a priority for the university right now. Though I do think many realize that it's a concern. It's just not one being spoken about.
Q: What do you hope to achieve?
I hope that my research alerts the community to how pervasive of a problem this truly is and I just really hope that it inspires more people to stand up and make a difference. If my research makes a difference for one person, then I'll feel accomplished.
I would just remind everyone that, you know, we all have a story and we all deserve to have our voice heard and right now the homeless population isn't being given that opportunity. And so just, you know, take the time to listen to them and hear their stories. Because most of the time they'll, end up surprising you.