Hope fades for growing number of homeless in Las Vegas
Posted: Nov. 6, 2011 | 1:59 a.m.
Updated: Nov. 6, 2011 | 7:46 a.m.
Come here at night and you’ll see scores of them, lying side-by-side in the open or huddled inside tents, banding together to form their own makeshift communities.
Many of them scatter when day breaks. But, especially lately, plenty of destitute campers remain around downtown’s homeless corridor even by day, squatting along the sidewalks or in empty lots, panhandling or simply wandering toward nowhere in particular.
“I’m not enjoying this lifestyle at all,” a bearded man in his 50s says while smoking next to his duffel bag on Foremaster Lane near Las Vegas Boulevard.
But he can’t go to a shelter, he says. “They’ve been filling up too fast.”
Early this year, Southern Nevada got some good news for a change. Despite the still dismal economy, significantly fewer people overall were homeless in the valley than in 2009, according to a large-scale January homeless count.
But a closer look at the results of that count revealed some disturbing trends. The number of people actually living on the streets, those most of us think of as “homeless,” had climbed dramatically. That disparity was made possible because the official, broader definition of homelessness includes people living in shelters or transitional housing.
Particularly troubling was the steep increase in homelessness in the area surrounding downtown’s homeless corridor, a cluster of shelters, empty lots, beleaguered businesses and graveyards near Foremaster and Las Vegas Boulevard that officials call the Corridor of Hope. The number of people on the streets in the area spiked by 230 percent between 2009 and 2011, according to the count.
Some say they’ve seen conditions there this bad only once before: in the months following 9/11, when tourism ground to a halt.
“So many families never expected the next paycheck wasn’t coming” at the that time, said Marlene Richter, executive director of The Shade Tree shelter for women and children. “But that was for a period of a few months. This time, it’s been years.”
Meanwhile, most homeless service providers in the area are making do with decreased funding and fewer resources — a losing combination.
“We are turning away up to 10 families a day,” Richter said. “There is no more shelter, no new facilities. That safety net is gone.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Every two years, hundreds of volunteers gather to conduct a point-in-time homeless count meant to give social service providers an idea of how the local homeless population has changed. They fan out across the county in cars and on foot for a nighttime street count, which is then combined with tallies from local shelters, hospitals and other sources for an estimate of the number of homeless people living here on a given day.
Such censuses are required every two years to apply for federal grant money to fight homelessness.
This year, regional officials were pleased to discover that the overall homeless population had shrunk by nearly 30 percent, from 13,338 in 2009 to 9,432 in 2011.
They attributed the decrease in part to better collaboration between local government, nonprofits and faith-based groups that help the homeless.
But some social service providers said the overall numbers didn’t reflect the reality of what they were seeing.
“We haven’t seen a decline in terms of the shelter services we’re providing,” Phillip Hollon, vice president of plaza services for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said in May.
The charity’s shelter in the homeless corridor is full every night, he said, and workers have to turn people away.
“Maybe they wind up in someone’s backyard,” he said.
Indeed, the count revealed that while the overall number of homeless had decreased, there was a sharp increase in the number of unsheltered “street” homeless, from 3,027 in 2009 to 4,241 in 2011.
The overall decrease was thanks to shrinking numbers of “sheltered” and “hidden” homeless, people living in homeless shelters, transitional housing and in unconverted garages or other private property not meant for shelter.
It follows that some of those people wound up on the streets.
And the number of “street” homeless may be even higher, because they are notoriously hard to count. They stay hidden for privacy and safety.
About 29 percent of the entire valley’s street homeless, or about 1,245 people, were found in or around downtown’s homeless corridor, where they tend to gather because of resources available there. In 2009, that number was 377.
Those who work with the homeless say the resources aren’t enough and are even shrinking, leaving them to worry just how bad things could get.
“It scares me we’re going backwards to a time when people spent five or six years living on the sidewalk,” Richter said.
THE SHRINKING SAFETY NET
Social service providers say more people are living on Las Vegas Valley streets in part because safety-net programs were cut at the same time need increased in a dismal economy.
One of the cuts with the biggest impact was to the county’s emergency rental assistance program, which provides eligible individuals $400 a month to stave off homelessness.
The county’s budget for emergency rental and other financial assistance this year is $3.8 million. Two years ago, the county spent $12 million.
The cuts were necessary in part because the county had to assume more Medicaid costs from the state, said Tim Burch, interim director of Clark County Social Service Department.
As a result, the county had to slash the length of time most people can receive rental assistance each year from 90 days to 30.
“As the state shifts more of the burden to us, we have to shift it elsewhere,” Burch said. “It puts a burden on nonprofits and other service providers in the Corridor of Hope. It puts a strain on the overall community safety net.”
Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program, said such cuts threaten to destroy the progress service providers managed to make over the years by working together.
“Whatever we accomplish in one area is taken away in another,” she said. “We come together and unify and support each other, and then somebody pulls the rug out.”
County support for Catholic Charities also has shrunk, leaving the downtown shelter with fewer emergency beds.
And because of budget cuts and a scarcity of employment opportunities, the charity had to gut its resident work program, which previously provided up to 400 men with shelter and job placement assistance. The program’s new capacity is 125.
Meanwhile, “we’re seeing more in need in this corridor than ever before,” Hollon said.
He said the shelter has been turning more men away.
So has the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, which this year was actually able to increase its shelter space thanks to private donations. Still, it wasn’t enough.
“A good number of those people (on the street) are there because they tried to get in some place and it was full,” said Bob Brunner, the mission’s executive director. “Unfortunately we do have to turn people away.”
Major Robert Lloyd, Clark County coordinator for the Salvation Army, said, “All you have to do is drive down to the area” to see the increased need.
“There are not enough beds. Look at the people outside, and you realize the shelter is full.”
THE NEW HOMELESS
Kathy Dowd, 54, is an educated woman with 20 years’ teaching experience.
She can intelligently discuss the plays of Shakespeare, lead poetry workshops and lecture on early childhood development.
She also is among the new faces of homelessness, the type of person social service providers are seeing more and more.
“I’ve always been able to get a job,” said Dowd, who has been living at The Shade Tree for more than a year. “I’ve worked my whole life.”
Dowd found herself in trouble after taking a hiatus from her teaching career to care for her ailing mother in Colorado. When her mother died, Dowd came to Las Vegas to start over. But what little money she had went quickly, and she found herself doing something she never imagined: going to a homeless shelter.
“People wonder how I ended up here,” she said. “Because of the economy, there are a lot of people in here who worked hard for years. We’re not all on drugs or alcohol. We’re not all winos and bums.”
Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow, whose ward includes the homeless corridor, said those who lost jobs and homes are now landing on the streets.
“These are individuals who had homes and full-times jobs, who were providing for their families,” he said. “These are the individuals who wound up sleeping on relatives’ and friends’ couches. Now, they’re out there.”
Many of the newly homeless struggle to find the help they never needed before.
“They are our former co-workers and neighbors,” Richter said. “They were working and had goals and plans. They found themselves in a situation they are completely unprepared to survive.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Social service providers would like to have more money and resources, and especially more jobs for the down-and-out. But they also are hopeful about a program in the works that would encourage churches and other faith-based institutions to “adopt” a homeless family or individual for a year.
The congregations of such institutions would serve as support groups for the homeless person or family they adopted, said Tyrone Thompson of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s committees on homelessness and youth.
“The congregation would help them navigate through the process, find food stamps and other benefits,” he said.
The program is being developed in partnership with Family Promise, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless families in part by partnering with faith-based organizations, Thompson said.
Lloyd, from the Salvation Army, said he would like to see churches pursue more partnerships with existing homeless service organizations instead of trying to start their own.
“It’s always demoralizing when you need help and a church wants to know how to start its own social service agency or food bank,” he said. “It’s demoralizing when you see those churches feeding people out of the back of a vehicle and not picking up the garbage.”
Donations such as food, clothing and blankets given directly to people in the homeless corridor often wind up discarded on the street. City cleanup crews regularly sweep everything up.
“It really builds up,” said Las Vegas police officer Mark Washington, part of the department’s Homeless Evaluation Liaison Project (HELP) team. “There are a lot of good-hearted people out there; but when you give resources to people on the street, a lot of times it goes to waste.”
A homeless encampment has sprung up along Owens Avenue near A Street at the edge of downtown’s homeless corridor. The number of people living on the streets in and around the corridor has more than tripled since 2009, according to a January homeless count.
Darla Hatcher cries as she talks about how she spent the night outside a business on Main Street. Social service providers are seeing an increasing number of homeless while resources to help them dwindle.
Brian, who declined to give his last name, has been sleeping in the bed of his pickup with his father and his dog, Big Al Capone. He gets a monthly check from the Army. “So many people are just one paycheck away from this,” the 43-year-old said.
Kathy Dowd, 54, is among the valley’s “new” homeless — people who have never before found themselves with no place to go. Dowd, who has 20 years’ teaching experience, has been living at The Shade Tree Shelter for more than a year. “Because of the economy, there are a lot of people in here who worked hard for years,” she said. “We’re not all on drugs or alcohol. We’re not all winos and bums.”
Eric Janson, with the city’s Rapid Response Team, cleans up items left by homeless people in a former trailer park in downtown’s homeless corridor. Donations such as food and blankets given directly to people in the area often wind up discarded.