One of Many Feeling the “Growth Pain”
Reno is going through a difficult transition from a simple, welcoming western town to perhaps a city of the future. "Growth pain" is a phrase often used by politicians and media to describe this current stage of economic development. Yet, what is the human experience of this "growth-pain"? Who feels it?
I first met Kristine Lawson, in December 2017, while I was reporting on homelessness in Reno. On a chilly winter afternoon, she seemed to enjoy herself at a community dinner organized by the local group ACTIONN. Kristine appeared open and warm, but a little self-conscious. We kept meeting at her tiny room at the motel and eventually she let out a river of emotions and stories about her past: her comfortable middle-class upbringing, the subsequent separation of her parents, the emotional and practical chaos she felt because of it, her very personal struggle with dyslexia as a teenager, and later, in a grown-up world, her constant struggle to stay close to her six children from two failed marriages. She said she worked several jobs to support her family until a disability induced by acute asthma and sleep apnea made her unfit to work.
The Beginning of Homelessness and a Derailed Family Reunion
Kristine became homeless in 2015 in Sacramento, CA. Her daughter and son-in-law, who were living in Hesperia, CA, took her and her young son in. But, she and her son-in-law did not get along. Kristine said she then drifted for a year and then found her way to Reno. When I first met her in 2017, she seemed hopeful for her future. She said she looked forward to reunite with her son on Christmas Day that year. She yearned to rebuild her life to get back the middle-class respectability of a home and family.
How has her life been all this while? Did her wishes come true? What worked and what didn’t? I recently reconnected with Kristine to find out.
Her family reunion she looked forward to started off on a good note in December 2017.
“My ex husband paid for me and we stayed in the same hotel down there in southern California. I took Amtrak, which was awesome because I've never even been on [a] vacation. I saw my son. He wanted me there for Christmas.”
But she said the reunion turned out to be traumatic. It brought to surface a lot of resentment and anger within the family.
“My son blamed me for losing our place in Sacramento, which wasn't my fault. He blames me right when I was talking to a woman who was staying [at the hotel], for a minute. They say I’m crazy, I’m depressed, I’m on drugs. I do not like drugs … I do not like alcohol. I don’t like to gamble. I smoke cigarettes, that’s all I do. It’s not against the law to be depressed, you know. People are set up, they went through what I went through and they just can’t...” Kristine choked up.
“I Don’t Know Where My Feet Are”
Kristine says she tries hard to stay positive by going to church and believing in God.
“I thought I would be on my feet by now,” she said. “But I don't know where my feet are. When money was coming in, you know, the child support was coming in with disability [checks], we would have made it back to California. The child support stopped coming in when I lost my phone [in March].” This year her son became an adult. He lives in Reno. He visited Kristine at the motel but they had a fight as he kept pushing her for money and support she couldn’t give. “My son doesn't want to move back in with me ’cause he has a girlfriend now. I understand. And I thought what I’m gonna do? I cannot stay in a hotel for the rest of my life!”
Kristine is aware of the many different programs to help out the homeless but said they are hard to understand and access
"Kathy [a friend who is also homeless] is the one that told me about a program for senior disabled citizens. Now the program just started like three years ago, I guess. And it was for disabled people too. And it's run by the federal government, I guess. Her place is a one-bedroom apartment. It's eight floors high, just got a balcony. You know what I mean, this is a real home! She loves it. I was there for two days. I didn't want to leave. And you get dinner every day, one dinner once a day and then you can cook in your own house in your own room. You have a full kitchen. I have signed up for it but nothing has worked out so far,” she said.
Kristine has tried to get Section 8 housing or help from local churches as well.
Grateful for her Motel Room
Her motel room, she says, doesn’t feel like a home, but neither do the streets of Reno. She used to take rests by the central bus station but says that has changed.
“You can't just hang out at the bus station, you can't just hang out in the casino,” she said. “So, people have to walk constantly. Before, when I first came here, you know, like three years ago, you could at least sit at the bus station and then they changed their contract and the new people [are] like, no way [you can be here]. So they kicked people out. So, you gotta keep walking.”
Kristine feels that regardless of her health conditions and changing rules for outdoor spaces, she has to keep trying to find a way to get better housing. She has been requesting bus passes from different charities to move around more, but has found that more difficult as well.
Kristine says she gets $771 a month for her disability but then spends $650 on rent, leaving her with very little for day to day expenses.
“All my money goes to the room,” she said. She said she collects food stamps and sometimes gets food with Christian charities.
Kristine feels that motels are essential for her survival in a housing market such as Reno's. “They [her motel] have very good managers. They're in their seventies and eighties, real good about keeping riffraff out of here. They keep an eye, you know. It's really neat because if there's any big cars parked here, unless it's people that are actually working for a cleaning or doing repairs, they'll make them park over on the other side. Because at nighttime, I worry about riffraff walking by. They keep this place clean. There's no bugs. That's why so many people want to be in this place.”
Fears for the Future
Kristine said that in the three years she has stayed at the motel the rent hasn’t gone up. “Right now I feel faith because God has got me stable right here. Nobody kicked me out as long as I pay.”
However, she will need to move after a year, she said, as the motel allows four years of stay, at the most. We didn’t get independent confirmation of this but could feel her worry.
“I'm going to die here or I'm going to find a place that's going to have me for the rest of my life,” she said of her options.
Photos and reporting by Sudhiti Naskar shared with Our Town Reno