On the way to her bus stop, Katie Meyer sees homeless people sleeping in doorways. Not long ago she was living comfortably in the West Side neighborhood of Groesbeck, where her neighbors busied themselves driving kids to piano lessons and sporting events.
For many of the people who are Meyer's neighbors now, just owning a car is a luxury.
In high school, the only time Meyer experienced Over-the-Rhine was when she went to school dances at Music Hall. She wasn't to cross Elm Street to Washington Park.
Meyer is living in Over-the-Rhine for a semester, sharing a house with five other Xavier University students, their professor and a graduate assistant in a program called the Urban Service Learning Semester. XU rents the house from ReStoc, the nonprofit organization that develops housing for low-income people in the inner city.
"I lived in an all-white suburb and I thought coming down and getting the 180-degree flip of that would be amazing," Meyer says. "It's very different from living in a dorm at Xavier."
She's found the kids in Over-the-Rhine are exposed to serious social issues at a very young age.
"It's interesting hearing them talk about the little kid who's 10 years old who got arrested for robbery, and this is the third time he's been in jail," she says.
Even though they're faced with adult problems, kids are still kids.
"Right at 2:30 when school lets out, we hear a knock on our door and hear, 'Come out and play!' " she says.
Meyer says the kids are street smart, but she still worries. She sees 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds running around at 10:00 on weeknights or 11 p.m. on weekends. Even as a child in the suburbs, she always had to be home before dark.
"I'm personally frightened for the kids," she says.
Meyer, 20, plans to teach dance classes at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine. She's told the children are mostly interested in Hip-Hop, but she plans to throw in some ballet.
Despite the problems the neighborhood faces, Meyer says it offers a sense of community that can't be found elsewhere. Many people in Over-the-Rhine walk where they need to go, stopping to converse with neighbors on the way.
"There are no backyards for people to seclude themselves in," she says. "If I were to walk down Colerain Avenue, I might be lucky to run into one or two people just walking along."
One danger for Meyer comes from the emotional pull of seeing people in desperation.
"I really need to be careful not to let everything land on my heart and really bog me down," she says.
In an empty lot next to the students' home, hidden from Race Street, is a shanty house. Behind an overgrown area lies a mattress covered with plywood boards. It's not garbage — it's someone's home.
The students gave the woman living there guidance on how to find affordable housing. Meyer isn't sure if she took their advice. Working with people, rather than for them, is a concept Meyer firmly believes in. She says she wants to "give people hope that there can be change" and involve them in the process.
Meyer believes it's important for people to realize we're all interrelated, and helping others is a part of that role.
"I've always loved coming downtown — all the people, all the business, all the interactions," she says. "There is such a divide, the inner city and the suburbs. There's this wonderful rich culture in this square mile that the city is not aware of."
Meyer is a junior at Xavier, studying theology with a minor concentration in peace studies. She volunteers at the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center. She and her fellow students take classes on Xavier's campus and at Peaslee.
The Urban Service Learning Semester includes issues related to racism, housing, welfare reform, racial issues, the migration of Appalachians into urban areas, poverty and education.
"It's not something that an education at Xavier will get you," Meyer says. "You have to be willing to step out of that comfort zone to help solve the problems that Cincinnati is having."
Although she's been living in Over-the-Rhine only since mid-August, the experience has already had a deep effect on her.
"I'm just more open to people's situations and a lot less judgmental than what I was in high school," she says. "I'm a lot more open with sharing my experiences with others." ©