02/06/2013 - Counting the Hard to Find in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nevada

I was honored to be able to join the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition in their Homeless Census on January 24 and 25.  I left especially impressed by the efforts to make sure that people whose homelessness may be invisible in our communities were recognized and counted. I spent those two days with a variety of teams with distinct and specific purposes: together these four experiences give a good snapshot of the many facets of a PIT count that help us to collect comprehensive and accurate data on this population. I was honored to be a part of this work.

Covering Every Street and Alley

Deployed from Catholic Charities Plaza along Las Vegas' Corridor of Hope at about 1:30 am, my teammates, Lawrence Rivers and Willie Lee Reed, and I spent the next several hours walking every block of a neighborhood adjacent to Las Vegas' downtown core: a mix of office, multifamily housing, and single-family homes that is also markedly affected by foreclosure and abandoned buildings.  Lawrence and Willie Lee, both of whom have experienced homelessness in Las Vegas, were invaluable guides through these darkened streets and alleys.  Their expertise helped us to identify secluded locations where it was likely people might be sleeping. They also helped us connect with other people also walking through the quiet neighborhood who, rather than counting, were looking for a safe, peaceful spot where they might be able to find some rest.  Lawrence and Willie Lee also deepened my understanding of the array of housing and services options available in Las Vegas, using their knowledge to help a scared-looking young man we came upon at about 4:30 am as we finished walking our assigned area.  This young man had been struggling since the previous morning to remain clean from a meth addiction.  With no family or friends in the area to turn to for support, he was trying to make it through a long night alone.  Lawrence and Willie Lee were able to suggest a services intake location he could try at 10:00 am, but then we had to leave him, six hours and a couple of miles away from the possibility of help and a potential path toward housing.

Going Underground

Most visitors traveling between the airport and the Vegas Strip likely notice the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign. Far fewer visitors are likely aware that adjacent to that sign just off Las Vegas Boulevard is an entrance to one of the underground tunnels and washes beneath the city's streets and casinos, where people have often sought refuge from the desert's brutal climate.  Fortified by some more caffeine, I joined a dedicated outreach team and police officers to walk through these dark and often damp tunnels.  This team included Macheo Willis and Joan Lima from HELP of Southern Nevada; Olwyn Pruitt and Yaquelin Herrera from Straight from the Streets; and Officers Stephane Dunn and Ivan Munoz of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Departments (Metro).

Pictured right: Metro officer and HELP staff member search the underpass of Las Vegas Boulevard for those experiencing homelessness.

Flashlights in hand to cut through the pitch dark underground (even as it was mid-morning aboveground) we found mercifully few people sleeping in these unsafe, unhygienic settings, but plenty of evidence of people having spent time there.  My guides indicated that more people may have slept in these tunnels the night before but left at daylight, and that recent rains may have caused others to temporarily relocate aboveground.  This group has also worked hard in recent years to reach and develop rapport with all vulnerable people previously living in these tunnels and to help them to access services and housing. 

Youth Searching for Youth

While the tunnels outreach team headed off to continue their underground searches, I headed back to Las Vegas' Corridor of Hope and HELP of Southern Nevada's Shannon West Homeless Youth Center to assist with the deployment of staff and adult and youth volunteers for the youth count.  Armed with maps of every census tract, and guided by the youth's experience regarding where to look, the youth count teams headed off to cover the entire community and better define the scope and scale of youth homelessness in Las Vegas.  Although I was unable to join them for this portion of the count, I found it especially critical to mention this important aspect of their work. Communities like this one are taking specific actions to get the most accurate count of youth experiencing homelessness than ever before, and their creative and purposeful work is something to be recognized.

Counting By Car - and By Air

Leaving Las Vegas at 2:00 am the following morning, I drove 100 miles to reach Laughlin, Nevada, tucked against the border with Arizona, by 4:30 am to take part in the region's rural count.  I was joined there by VA Undersecretary Steve Muro; Skye McDougall, Chief Medical Officer for the VA Desert Pacific Healthcare Network; and John Bright, Director of VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.  Darryl Dauenhauer of the Colorado River Food Bank quickly informed us that in Laughlin we were unlikely to find any people sleeping on the streets in town: most people experiencing homelessness in Laughlin seclude themselves in remote areas outside of town in tents, encampments, cars, or RVs.  Count organizers were prepared for this challenge, however, and while VA staff headed off with a Laughlin Fireman to explore back roads in the hills, I headed off with Metro Police Officer Julie Artau to search through parking lots and dirt roads along the Colorado River.  No visitor to Laughlin's Casinos or to Bullhead City, Arizona across the river would ever likely find the locations Officer Artau knew to look.    As I followed her through this secluded terrain, it was clear that no matter where they were living and sleeping, Officer Artau treated all Laughlin residents as worthy of her respect and protection.  Even so, there were places even we couldn't get to. To address this gap, the Metro Police helicopter flew over the rural desert surrounding Laughlin to ensure that every tent, encampment, and vehicle serving as shelter was accounted for.

Ending homelessness in our communities will require recognizing and reaching people who may remain invisible to most of us. I wish I could say I felt certain that every person experiencing homelessness in Las Vegas and Laughlin was found and counted, but I know that's unlikely. However, the vision and commitment that every person deserves to be counted was clear, and it is a commitment that I know will be continued in Southern Nevada for years to come.

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