April Corbin Girnus and Michael Lyle

(Nevada Current) On the third-to-last day of a 120-day legislative session, Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) and a small army of lobbyists representing the state’s premier industry asked lawmakers to establish a $100 million fund to support the buildout of a “transformational campus” that offers support to the unhoused or people at risk of homelessness.

The language of Assembly Bill 528, which Yeager introduced as an emergency measure on Friday and presented to the Assembly Ways and Means committee the following day, does not explicitly describe a specific project.

But the pitch made by Yeager and his co-presenter, consultant Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis, is that a privately funded group (presumably one to be set up by the gaming industry) will lead the development and construction of a 20-to-25-acre campus of sorts that would consolidate services, including emergency shelters, navigation centers, health care providers, job training and transitional housing.

The group would have to apply for the $100 million in matching funds through the Governor’s Office for Economic Development. The group would have to make at least $75 million in capital investments to qualify and would be subject to other requirements and oversight. The group would also have to partner with existing nonprofits, and state and local government agencies. And local governments would be authorized to grant industry participants abatements of permitting fees and licensing fees.

“This is intended to be an all-hands-on-deck concept,” said Yeager.

The inspiration behind the project is Haven for Hope, a regional homelessness “transformational campus” in San Antonio, Texas. According to a Haven for Hope report, the construction of the campus required $100.5 million in funding — 60% came from the private sector and 40% from public funding.

“This is not a facility that has the ability to take the homeless from one location and take them to another jurisdiction,” said Aguero. “That is not allowed here. What is allowed is a particular jurisdiction with a navigation center that allows folks to opt in to a higher level of services that help them get on their feet.”

Aguero described the proposed Southern Nevada campus as a “hub and spoke” model, with one central location and smaller associated sites within the cities. Yeager said the state’s Grant Sawyer Building was mentioned as the possible hub site during early talks about the project, but he emphasized that at this point it remains merely a suggestion.

Aguero said AB 528 would require a collaborative approach with the cities and county, which would give input.

The initial $100 million public investment in the project would establish the main campus. Aguero said the idea is that ongoing expenses would be shared between private donors, local governments and the state.

According to a Haven for Hope report, 24% of their $20.7 million operational budget in 2020 came from the state, 22% from the city, 5% from the county, and 5% from the federal government.

Lobbyists from Caesars Entertainment, MGM Resorts, Wynn Resorts, Station Casinos, Boyd Gaming, and the Nevada Resorts Association all expressed their commitment to the project.

The quiet part out loud

While AB 528 was only introduced on Friday, at least one casino executive had already publicly acknowledged the project earlier.

Wynn Resorts Executive Vice President Ellen Whittemore at a Nevada Women’s Philanthropy forum, which aired on KNPR recently, said Wynn and other resorts have been working to address the rise of “vagrancy” on the Strip.

The Corridor of Hope is “highly saturated," a Las Vegas city official told the committee. (Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)
The Corridor of Hope is “highly saturated," a Las Vegas city official told the committee. (Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)

“We established and hosted all the security chiefs at all the resorts properties, Clark County Commission Chair (Jim) Gibson, (District Attorney Steve) Wolfson, at the time Sheriff (Joe) Lombardo, representatives at the court and the Gaming Control Board to talk about what to do about the problem of vagrancy,” she said. “The sheriff’s office started arresting more people for trespassing, enforcing more of the tools they had in their tool belt.”

Whittemore pointed to an “order-out ordinance” adopted by Clark County last summer which offered “a reduced sentence in order for a promise not to come to the Strip.”

While the strategy of tougher law enforcement has “been very very effective,” she said, it “did nothing to help the people creating the problem on the Strip.”

That realization was an impetus for the industry to want to replicate San Antonio, she explained.

“We have something to that effect in the City of Las Vegas,” she added, “but it’s something we can make bigger and better.”

Aguero at Saturday’s bill hearing also referenced recent efforts made by the City of Las Vegas, saying it was “a shining example” of how the model can work.

The City of Las Vegas Courtyard Homeless Resource Center began offering services in 2017 and includes an outside covered area for clients to sleep.

The Courtyard is located in what is known as the “Corridor of Hope,” an area near downtown Las Vegas where Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and Salvation Army are also located. The nonprofits provide emergency shelter beds, cooling stations in the summer, resources and case management for homeless clients.

Data from the city showed 6,524 people received “unduplicated” services at the Courtyard in 2021.

Only 32 of those people transitioned to independent housing, 25 “linked” to rental assistance, six people “linked to bridge housing, and 138 people “linked” to independent housing.

The report showed 906 individuals and 795 families were given bus tickets out of town.

The city announced in April it was expanding the courtyard to provide additional wrap around services.

Kathi Thomas of the City of Las Vegas told lawmakers at Saturday’s hearing that the Courtyard is “at capacity” and that the Corridor of Hope is “highly saturated.” She said the city welcomes a regional approach that allows services to be reached across the valley.

She added that cities, like San Antonio, which have seen decreases in their rates of homelessness, have the model proposed by AB 528: “The private sector contributes significantly. In leadership and governance structure.”

Homelessness. And less homes.

Southern Nevada saw its rate of homelessness increase last year.

The 2022 Point-in-Time Count and Survey — conducted in February 2022 — found 5,645 people experiencing homelessness, an increase from 5,083 in 2021.

At the time of the report, Tim Burch, the administrator of human services for Clark County, said that “the wave of the pandemic crashed on the rock of a housing crisis.”

Social service providers have warned high rents have contributed to the increase in the number of people on the verge of homelessness.

Burch estimated at the time that Southern Nevada lacked more than 75,000 affordable housing units.

Assembly Ways and Means committee members and Aguero on Saturday acknowledged that Nevada will still need to address affordable housing issues. He said other legislation making its way through Carson City are addressing those and could complement the efforts of AB 528.

“No one piece of legislation can do everything,” he said.