William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 18 Sep 2005 10:11:56 -0400

Mentally ill homeless program not moving
By Timothy Pratt timothy@lasvegassun.com


Sept. 17-18, 2005

As schizophrenics, the suicidal, and the manically depressed overcrowded Las 
Vegas Valley emergency rooms in July 2004, Clark County Manager Thom Reilly 
declared the problem had reached a crisis level.

A month later, officials signed documents pledging to use $1.5 million in 
federal funds for a program to get mentally ill homeless people off the 
street, into housing and under care.

But 13 months later, the $1.5 million program hasn't helped any of the 
valley's estimated 3,000-plus homeless people with psychiatric problems.

What went wrong?

"(The) bureaucracies are responsible for what appears to be most of the 
delay," said Carl Rowe, interim executive director of the Clark County 
Housing Authority, one of the two main agencies involved in the project.

"It is a shame (and) I don't think we have worked hard enough on housing 
these people."

The reasons cited for the delay were typical of those that the public 
associates with bureaucracies -- drawing up and signing a contract took 10 
months due to "issues regarding wording," officials played phone tag, 
determination of whether a man who nearly became the program's first 
beneficiary was "imminently homeless" dragged on for weeks.

Designed to follow best practices seen elsewhere in the nation, the $1.5 
million program was meant to be "a model for others (in the valley) to 
follow," said Gus Ramos, board member of the Southern Nevada Homeless 

The idea was to get the homeless into housing and then offer them services 
to deal with underlying conditions leading to a life on the street, in this 
case mental illness.

Ramos said he developed the concept for the program when he was deputy 
executive director of the housing authority. A veteran of three decades at 
different housing authorities, Ramos retired in September 2004.

"I'm disappointed it (the program) hasn't moved," he said.

Recent efforts by county officials to find federal housing money for helping 
Hurricane Katrina survivors brought the unspent funds to light.

Last week the county housing authority proposed using the program as a 
contractual vehicle to be able to quickly spend a separate pot of $1.1 
million in public funds on Katrina victims. The idea was eventually 
abandoned because county officials thought it was better to use the money on 
programs for local residents.

The delay in launching the county program to house and help the homeless 
mentally ill has been due to turnover in several agencies and the process of 
drawing up contracts, Rowe said.

Not long after Rowe came on board at the agency in mid-May, he and his staff 
"started asking, 'What is this program?"' he said.

The $1.5 million comes from the federal Housing and Urban Development 
Department. The idea is that most of the money would go into vouchers the 
mentally ill could use to pay up to two years worth of rent. A small portion 
of the funds was intended for the general homeless population.

Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health, a state agency, was supposed to locate 
the mentally ill people and refer them to the housing authority, which was 
to administer the vouchers and process applications to the program. The 
mental health agency then was to offer the people treatment after they moved 
into housing.

The program was designed for the state to locate 74 individuals or families 
who could be given the housing for up to two years. Additionally, two 
nonprofit agencies -- Women's Development Center and Lutheran Social 
Services -- signed on to each locate up to 20 more individuals or families 
to get housing through the program, Rowe said.

On Wednesday, Keith Willoughby, director of residential programs for the 
mental health agency, said one of the reasons his agency took 10 months to 
write and sign a contract with the housing authority was that there were 
"issues regarding wording."

He also said there were "issues contacting" the appropriate person in the 
housing authority. The housing authority has had two temporary directors in 
the last year.

Currently, Willoughby said, "As far as I know, we haven't gotten them (the 
housing authority) to approve one (person)."

He said there was "one client" he recalled, about whom it was "difficult to 
determine if he was imminently homeless."

Rowe said his agency had received one referral from the mental health 
agency, and that person was not housed.

Pamela Valencia, emergency food and services program manager for Lutheran 
Social Services, said her agency had run into a problem with referring 
clients to the program.

She said that the housing authority's need to do federally certified 
criminal background checks of prospective tenants can be an obstacle for 
people who are living on the street, since the checks can take months to 

Rowe said the background checks are "hard to get around."

Ramos said he developed the idea behind the program -- focusing on the 
mentally ill -- "as a result of what I was hearing from the coalition" about 
the need on the streets of the valley.

The coalition picked up on the issue for the same reasons that led Reilly to 
declare a "mental health emergency" in July 2004.

"The mentally ill chronically homeless are a problem in our valley and we 
needed a program to show we could do it. That could then attract more 
money," Ramos said.

Rowe said he would be trying to move the program along in the remaining two 
months of his tenure at the helm of the housing authority.

"If I have anything to do with it ... we'll get this damn money spent."