Michael Lyle

(Nevada Current) When homeless outreach workers and social service providers, led by HELP of Southern Nevada, posted up at the base of an encampment just outside the tunnels near the New Orleans hotel one late August morning, they weren’t certain how many people reside in the encampment, or how many of them would seek HELP’s help.

But the encampment was days away from being cleaned out by Clark County, and providers were working to connect as many of the unhoused folks living there to services.

HELP of Southern Nevada is contracted by Clark County to conduct homeless crisis response, and ahead of encampment removals the nonprofit organizes what is known as a level one outreach event, which brings resources directly to the encampment’s inhabitants.

By the end of the outreach on Aug. 29, there were 29 people, some from the tunnels and others who were residing near the tunnels, that sought some sort of resource.

HELP’s team conducted three housing assessments on the spot and referred five people to emergency shelters.

Similar to other encampment outreach events, HELP couldn’t place anyone directly into transitional housing programs or temporary non congregate shelters since there aren’t enough available to meet Southern Nevada’s rising homeless population.

Many won’t consider the congregate, dorm-style shelter beds available in the Corridor of Hope, an area near downtown Las Vegas where homeless resources and emergency shelters are concentrated.

Even if those shelters in the corridor weren’t at or near capacity most nights, many unhoused folks who live in encampments view those shelters as unsafe and full of too many people, said Alyssa Johnson, HELP’s regional outreach coordinator.

“I had someone who wanted to go into shelter but as soon as I told them they’d be in a dorm of about 45 to 100 other people he immediately backed out,” Johnson said. “It’s not unusual. Nobody is going to go to a shelter from these locations.”

Johnson has collected data on encampments since 2021 and found there was about a 9% acceptance rate going from an encampment to a shelter space.

Clark County recently opened a homeless Navigation Center, a converted Motel 6 turned into a 70-bed intake center, but Johnson said outreach workers aren’t able to refer unhoused individuals living in the encampments to those beds.

However, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers can, so Johnson said “the other option is trying to reach out to (law enforcement) and see if they are able to assist us.”

Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, who helped bring the converted motel online, said the county plans to work with HELP of Southern Nevada  to empower the organization to make referrals, but as of “right now, the Navigation Center is being used primarily for Metro coming to take people off of the Strip.”

“That’s our number one focus, the Strip,” Segerblom said. “We are trying to, for a lack of a better word, clean up the Strip. By doing that we want to be able to offer people a place to go like the Navigation Center.”

At the August event, people were still able to access other resources to meet basic needs.

Various homeless and mental health nonprofits set up booths yards away from the entrance of the tunnel to offer mental health checks, vaccinations, help obtaining identification, backpacks full of food and water, and even a mobile shower.

“We want to help meet their survival needs,” Johnson said. “If they come in and they’re hungry, if they’re thirsty, if they are feeling dirty, we try to remove all those barriers for them.”

Johnson said at the event they handed out 24 hygiene kits and 20 feminine hygiene kits. Additionally, one person was assessed for a detox program, one person received a mental health assessment, six acquired COVID and flu vaccines, five were referred to substance abuse programs, and four obtained referrals to mental health programs.

All 29 people who stopped by received food bags and bus passes.

With no other place to go, Johnson said those who were cleared out most likely will return to the encampment or move to another encampment nearby.

Segerblom said the county is trying to address the needs of the unhoused while also responding to concerns posed by large encampments.

“It’s tragic frankly, but it’s also the reality,” Segerblom said. “The encampments, if we don’t move them or shut them down, become too big and the people in the encampments bleed into the neighborhood and adversely impact the shopping centers.”

‘Never enough time’

The unhoused population in Southern Nevada is surging at alarming rates.

The 2023 Point-in-Time Count, an annual snapshot of homelessness on one particular night, counted 6,566 people, a 16% increase from 2022 when 5,645 unhoused people were identified.

The most alarming increase was among families experiencing homelessness, which jumped to 794 in 2023 from 516 the year before, a 54% jump.

Segerblom said his commission district in East Las Vegas has seen the largest rise in encampments in recent years, and that his office has received more complaints to clean up the areas.

“This year is the first year we’ve really been overcome,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s because the homeless are much more visible or because people are starting to pay attention.”

Segerblom pointed to resorts on the Las Vegas Strip that are cracking down on homeless enforcement, saying “I think because the Strip has been more assertive …and very relentless, that’s pushing people out of the Strip and primarily to the east and I think there are more homeless in my area.”

Clark County’s Code Enforcement department, which conducts enforcement on private property, received 2,821 complaints for homeless encampments in 2022 and so far has received 2,465 this year.

The Public Works department, which does clean-ups of public property, received 771 inquiries for homeless encampments in 2022 and so far 671 this year.

Code Enforcement posts a 30-day notice on the property prior to it being abated while Public Works posts a 24-hour notice prior to clearing the area.

In an email, county spokeswoman Yazmin Beltran said when a clean-up is conducted, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police “is on scene and will notify anyone on the property to gather their items and leave the property prior to the start of the clean-up.”

“The amount of time given varies depending on the number of people at the location and the amount of items that need to be removed,” she wrote.

HELP’s outreach team is contacted days, and sometimes weeks, prior to encampments being cleared out.

Johnson said depending on who is facilitating the abatement, she might get two weeks notice. If it’s a larger encampment of 20 or more people, she said “it’s never enough time.”

“When you’re talking about large encampments when it’s 20 or so people, you probably want to give each person an hour to meet with them and get into their case,” she said. “That’s about 20 hours of work to figure out what’s really going on with each client. Really getting in there and getting their story. That’s not counting follow-up time.”

Johnson is in charge of coordinating between jurisdictions, local nonprofits and private businesses to set up outreach events and make sure a variety of resources are available to those residing in the encampments.

She sometimes meets resistance in setting up the events.

“That’s the most common reason people don’t want to work with me because they feel I’m going to make the problem worse,” Johnson said. “I’m talking about parks and entire jurisdictions who have issues with it.”

Johnson declined to specify the jurisdictions that pushed back on outreach events.

“I’ve actually done events, and I’ve had them shut down part way through because we were on someone’s property and they didn’t like it.”

Sometimes, she added, the encampment abatements aren’t necessarily about moving the unhoused inhabitants but more about clearing debris to maintain the Las Vegas wash and channels.

More often than not, she said an area will be cleaned up and then “a client moves back in.“

“That is honestly the nature of abatements,” she said. “In an ideal world, what Houston is doing is something called encampment decommissioning.”

The idea, she said, would be to go into a large encampment and house everyone prior to conducting an abatement. Then public works would not only clean the encampment but upgrade the infrastructure so the encampment doesn’t return.

“That’s what I’d like to do out here, but there are some infrastructure concerns with the tunnels,” she said.

“Shutting down the tunnels so people can’t return and live in them is a very expensive thing to do. We’re talking millions of dollars. Until we can permanently close down these sites,” she said, “they are always going to have encampments.”

639 surveyed

The outreach event conducted at the New Orleans tunnels saw similar results to an outreach event conducted in July at the Lovewell Center to address a rise in unhoused folks staying at Sunset Park.

They were able to reach 39 clients, which included nine housing assessments, nine shelter referrals and 14 health care screenings. Three clients went into housing programs.

Those numbers are added to data HELP of Southern Nevada has been collecting on encampments since 2021.

The data, Johnson said, will allow the nonprofit to better track how large encampments are, where they are in the valley and the type of services the unhoused folks living there need.

She said the information will also aid outreach workers, and Southern Nevada as a whole, in better understanding the type of resources needed and the reasons why people are experiencing homelessness.

From July 2022 to June 2023, they were able to talk with 639 people living at encampments throughout Clark County. Johnson said the data doesn’t specify if there were repeat clients.

According to the data, the common reasons for homelessness of those that were surveyed were unemployment, a family crisis, and eviction.

The common reasons people didn’t want to go into shelter were because they were staying with someone else, they had safety concerns, or thought there were too many people.

Johnson said for some unhoused folks, they’ve tried congregate shelters and won’t return if they’ve had previous bad experiences.

“We have had a lot of people who don’t want to go to shelters because they feel it’s unsafe,” she said. “They don’t like the shelter condition, they feel it’s dirty, or they are homeless with someone else and the shelter will split them up in separate dorms.”

The waiting game

After having a falling out with his mother and being asked to leave, Deeante began sleeping at Charlie Frias Park, closeby to the New Orleans tunnel encampment outreach.

Deeante, who wanted to use his first name only for privacy purposes, said he preferred open space to the crowded emergency shelter spaces downtown.

“On Owens (Avenue), it gets crazy,” he said, referring to one of the streets in the corridor. “I don’t want to pick up anything from there.”

When workers with HELP told him about the outreach event in August, Deeante was just looking for a meal.

“They said they had something much better,” he said.

In addition to receiving a backpack full of food and water, Deeante completed a housing assessment. There was no immediate availability for him.

“He said keep in touch once a month,” Deeante said.

Deeante was one of the three people who did a housing assessment at the event, none of whom were able to immediately go into housing or a temporary program that gets them off the streets while they wait for a more permanent solution.

“I’m not sure how much movement we’re seeing out of the encampments through the community queue,” Johnson said. “We may not have that many people actually get out of our encampments through the system right now. I don’t think anyone knows because we’re not tracking it that well.”

Deeante joined the nearly 4,000-long wait on the coordinate entry list, which is how providers keep track of housing assessments for all homeless and housing insecure clients throughout Southern Nevada.

“All of the clients come in and they do a housing assessment and it goes onto the community waitlist, and then …there is no set timeframe on when you’ll get a referral to housing,” Johnson said. “There’s that waiting period.”

People are tasked with checking back in once a month to see if they’re any closer to a placement.

“We need these short term programs, to get people into at a rapid pace, and then stabilize them to get them into longer term programs that you really have to have the documentation to get into,” Johnson said. “But a lot of the time people on the streets or in encampments get lost in that shuffle.”

In addition to waiting for housing, Deeante is also waiting to hear back about a job. He went to school to become a medical assistant and was waiting to hear the results of a recent job interview.

While Deeante said it would likely take at least three months for housing, he was grateful that his name was at least added, and remained hopeful his luck could change for the better.

“I’m just waiting for them to say we have temporary housing for you,” Deeante said. “Then after that I can go from a temporary to a permanent home.”