November 7, 2018

The stories of people who are homeless are often hidden, a young journalist has learned, and they’re often familiar.

Jordan Blevins, a journalism student at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, finds a different one each time she and fellow reporter Prince Nesta go looking for subjects in Reno.  

One woman she met recently left home with her 16-year-old daughter to escape domestic violence. During the day, the daughter attends high school. At night, they take turns staying awake.

Blevins, who is 20, has a little sister who’s 16.

“It really hit home for me,” she said.

Her work is part of a street reporting project designed to do that for residents of Reno: to hit home and help people experiencing homelessness become real people.

Our Town Reno

Our Town Reno launched in 2016 after Nico Colombant noticed his students were drawn to the stories of Reno’s homeless population, but stuck to the surface and quickly moved on.

Reno has a housing crisis and stagnant wages, he said, and while the students moved on, the issues did not.

“There’s always been this whole push to rebrand Reno,” said Colombant, who is now a lecturer in digital media and previously worked as a journalist overseas and documentary filmmaker.

“As Reno rebrands, what about those struggling?” Our Town Reno asks.

“My approach is for students to care not just about celebrity journalism or sensational journalism,” he said.

He wants them to dig into the economic and social issues behind homelessness.

The project, now part of Reynolds Media Lab, focuses on storytelling online, as well as on Facebook and Instagram, where it has more than 4,000 followers on each platform. It hosts events and partners with KUNR, Reno’s public radio station. Students can report for the site through class or get paid through grants to the school that covers their work.

“Our Town Reno has just really grown significantly to be this really critical local community,” said Michelle Billman, KUNR’s news director.

The project transforms Reno’s homeless from people you pass by to people who have stories to tell.

“It’s not just someone you see when you walk to the coffee shop, but it’s someone whose name and voice and maybe a video of them have all been documented,” she said.


#renolive join us tonight for an #ourtownreno #localorelive event at the #desertroseinn for a #livejournalism event 5-7 pm where motel residents will give their own testimony as they fear for their future amid a changing Reno. #ourtownreno zines will be distributed. There will also be refreshments and #livemusic by @peoplewithbodies. We will also have art by @holland1483 Join us for this free community event to show you care. It was made possible with a grant by @aircurator. Our partners are @rsjnevada and @kunrpublicradio. We invite everyone to this free event including city and county leaders and those aspiring to those positions as well as local media to hear motel residents give their own views. An estimated 4,000 of our area’s residents live long term in motels which are often a last resort before homelessness or a first resort out of homelessness. Lots of talk and debates are centered around issues of #homelessness #motels #blight #affordablehousingcrisis but do we care about those most affected? @washoesheriff #washoecounty @washoecountylibrary @washoecountylibraries @washoecountymedicalexaminer @cityofreno @renobigartslittlecity @renotahoe @renoelections @edawnnevada @mayorschieve @oscardelgadonv @neomajardon @thisisreno @renogazettejournal @ktvn_reno @krnvnews4 @kolo8newsnow @nsduerr @davidbobzien #motellife #motelsofreno #renochange #newreno #oldreno #775 #renogentrifying #gentrificationinprogress #communityjournalism#movementjournalism @renonewsreview @millennialmike @abouttowndeb the title of the event is based off of an article our resident #ourtownreno philosopher @achtengram wrote for our website.

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From policy to people

Our Town Reno's work is not just about policy, said Jose Olivares, who helped co-found the site with Colombant when he was a student.

“It’s very much going out to the streets and speaking with people who are experiencing homelessness,” said Olivares, who now works for WNYC.

They’ve produced exclusives thanks to photos and video they got from a whistleblower and their work is brought up at local government meetings. Our Town Reno also now holds live events, thanks to a grant from the nonprofit AIR, and after a recent event on endangered motel residents, the topic led local news coverage. Some subjects who’ve been covered have also gotten help from concerned readers.

“Seeing the human impact of policy is the important thing,” Olivares said, “and I think it’s our task as journalists.”

They’re giving people who often are talked about a chance to actually be heard, thereby challenging stereotypes about homelessness. People often think people experiencing homelessness didn’t go to school or don’t have jobs or are addicts, Blevins said.

“Quite frankly, it’s not really the case most of the time.”

Domestic violence does often lead women in particular to the streets, she said. Blevins photographed one woman who makes $1,000 a month in fast food, but rent in Reno is much higher.

“My goal is through my reporting is to break down those stereotypes,” she said. “Homelessness is a huge issue and we can’t fix it immediately, but through our reporting, we can spread compassion and awareness, and through that people can end up getting help.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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