It’s a bone-chilling, winter night in Reno, Nevada. While most people are inside, warmly wrapped in their favorite blankets, volunteers are gathered at the West Street Plaza, otherwise known as ‘the circle’.
It is the annual point in time count. Every year on a cold January night, dedicated volunteers from local nonprofits like the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project and Build Our Center, set up a tent in the middle of the plaza. For 24 hours, they will take shifts manning the tent, counting the sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons that stop by. For the past six years, the count has focused specifically on the youth: the invisible population.
This count, put on behalf of the Reno Area Alliance for the Homeless, is the focus of a new local documentary made by Our Town Reno, a faculty and student run collective multimedia street-reporting project. The documentary, along with another student-made film titled “This is Homelessness” by Annie Aguzzi, will premier together at a community screening on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at the Potentialist.
Our Town Reno is headed by Nico Colombant, a lecturer and coordinator of the Reynolds Media Lab, and was started as a type of social media experiment that has grown into a thriving story-telling platform.
Our Town Reno is shining a light not only on the problems of homelessness and gentrification, but also to the everyday heroes that live in the community. Over the past two years, Our Town Reno has organically grown a following of almost 3,000 on Facebook; their comments section is littered with meaningful discussions and even whistleblowers from around the community. Their Instagram page, Biggest Little Streets, takes a raw, unfiltered look at the streets of downtown Reno and the people that inhabit them.
Above all, Our Town Reno is focused on telling stories one by one. Instead of piling a bunch of stories together to prove a point, they focus on individuals. Colombant says he wants Our Town Reno to be a platform for people to tell their stories that wouldn’t normally have one.
“One person is worthwhile,” said Colombant.
In their latest project, Our Town Reno took a slightly different approach, documenting the 24-hour point in time count. Reno is one of the few places to do a count specifically for homeless youth, and Nico, along with Reynolds School of Journalism alumni and Our Town Reno contributors Jose Olivares-Sefchick and Sarah Marriott, decided it would be the perfect event to not only shine light on the huge problem of youth homelessness, but also the courageous volunteers that dedicate more than 24 hours to the cause.
“One of the ideas of Our Town Reno is to put the people who are really heroes among us on a pedestal,” Colombant said. “This film is an ode to the volunteers, to show how amazing they truly are.”
For one day, ‘the circle’ in downtown Reno is transformed from a hangout place into a helping place. The data that is collected is used to develop and fund housing and supportive programs for those in need.
While the count is not entirely accurate, and doesn’t attract every youth that may be in transition, it gives the homeless population a chance to voice their needs, and try to make a difference. They’re the invisible population, Nico said, and for 24 hours each year they become visible.
Following the screening, Colombant is hosting a community discussion for the audience to share their thoughts, ideas and to inspire others. He will also be distributing Our Town Reno’s first Zine, which features work from UNR students Jose Olivares and Alexandra Mosher.
“‘Help at The Circle’ was very much made with the event in mind,” Colombant said. “This film is for a community audience.”
This event follows the tremendous success Our town Reno had last year with a screening event centered around another original documentary titled “Invisible Girl”. Following the screening in October of 2016, activists from around the community as well as homeless youth got to share their stories and connect in a way they hadn’t been able to before.
“It can be challenging to report about these issues,” Colombant said. “It can be challenging to go into a motel compound, or underneath bridges at night along the Truckee River where the homeless encampments are.”
That is why Colombant said he is thankful to use this medium to help students with challenging, worthwhile reporting experiences, that can really make a difference.
Emily Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.