For many, the Truckee River is home to memories of floating down on a raft on a summer day or walking through several parks lining banks. Some people fish, others enjoy its beauty from nearby coffee shops and restaurants. It’s home to festivals, local events, and, perhaps most importantly, our unsheltered population.
“Everyone has a story about the river,” Grant Denton, executive director of the Karma Box Project, says. “Ask anybody that was ever raised up here, that's been here for a while. They have some significant stories in their lives attached to the river. It's a landmark in their lives.”
For the unsheltered, the river provides a place for them to camp with others. But these camps contribute to pollution of the river and the increasing amount of trash in parks, making other residents feel uncomfortable about walking through places like Brodhead Park. Police officers may clear out camps, or local volunteers may bring food and other necessities, but neither of these actions actually solve homelessness. For Denton, success comes with a change in culture, not just for residents, but for unsheltered populations as well.
Denton says what’s being done with unsheltered populations before isn’t working. “So what the goal of what we're trying to do is go out there and teach them the skills, the foundational skills, of living in a different social bubble.”
Being unsheltered is truly about behavior patterns and cycles, Denton says. By working with Riverhood residents and fostering skills they need to break those cycles, change actually happens. He would know - he was unsheltered in Vegas for two years while struggling with drug addiction.
Getting out of that lifestyle wasn’t easy. It took people like Jessica, a woman at the detox intake center who touched his hand and told him everything was going to be alright. Or Mr. Wiggins at the food line, who hugged Denton and told him he loved him, even though they had just met. Perhaps most importantly, it was his grandmother, who wrote to him while he was in prison saying she wouldn’t send any more money, but that she still believed in him. She knew what he was capable of, she wrote. He just needed to go get it.
“So what got me out is people with better ideas than me. You can go through the programs and you can cycle out as many times as you want but it's people that help you,” he says. “So I needed people around me with better ideas and a willingness. And in the right people and environment, I was able to recover.”
From the moment you meet Denton, you can see just how much he cares for the population down by the river. He talks to everyone he sees while picking up trash in Brodhead Park, giving a hug here, a handshake there, all with a giant smile and an eager sincerity that’s infectious. If there was ever someone who embodied the spirit of the Truckee River in downtown Reno, it’s Denton. He’s only been in Reno for a few years, but he’s made himself a staple in the community, especially for the unsheltered population. He’s even been recognized as a local superhero. His Karma Box nonprofit has set up more than thirty donation spots where those who have extra non-perishable items can drop them off for those who need them. He now works with the City of Reno to help clean up Brodhead Park, a city park on the river where many of our unsheltered residents camp.
Denton, who also says his primary goal is working on the culture of the unsheltered community, says trash is the immediate concern at the moment. It can be as simple as picking up trash the next time you bring food or items to a homeless camp, Denton says. “If we can set an example, and promote better ideas, and a healthier way of living… we're actually setting them up to be able to stabilize.”
Going out and cleaning up trash every week may seem like a small step towards getting unsheltered off the streets, but Denton, who spends just as much time talking with Riverhood residents as he does picking up trash, says it’s about building relationships and a healthy culture around the river. “So, trash, which is the environment, starts with behavior. Behavior is being cognizant of your footprint, be cognizant of your neighbor… And so we go out and work with them to clean up trash, promoting a healthy culture around the river.”
Culture is a big part of Denton’s work. By cultivating relationships with river residents, he’s instilling a sense of purpose. Giving them something to do, like pick up trash and encourage others to do the same, curates the idea of cleanliness among homeless camps. This keeps the water clean, keeps downtown Reno clean, and helps destigmatize our most vulnerable population.
Denton’s dream vision of the river is one of balance. “It's not like completely taken over by one population or the other one, that it's balanced so that you can walk down there, run down there with your kids, you can set up camp and go fishing with your kids, and not have to be nervous about things.”
That vision also includes recognizing how all residents of our city, including those experiencing homelessness, can be active with a sense of purpose. In a video with This is Reno, Denton shared his hopes of an empowered unsheltered community. “We have a group here, a unique group that has different skills, different talents. We’ve got a group here that’s capable of doing things. We’ve just got to give them a platform.”
For Denton, the river is just as much about the residents as it is the river itself. To enact true change in the river, and find that balance from his dream vision, Denton says there has to be a change in mindset. “Because we stigmatize this group which limits us from actually learning about them,” he says. “ It makes it seem like it's divisive. Like they're way over there and we're over here. It's not true.
It's just another little village. We just have to learn to work in this village to take these people considered liabilities, look at them as assets, and push them in that direction.”
Regenerative thinking is about creating a better future for the residents of our city - all of our residents. Cleaning up a homeless camp on the river may seem like a small thing, but it’s part of a larger ecosystem of regenerative change in Reno.