Las Vegas Sleepout: Teens get feel for homeless people's plight

Tom Boland (
Sun, 15 Nov 1998 14:57:08 -0400
FWD  Las Vegas Review-Journal  Friday, November 13, 1998


Youngsters spend a cold night out to learn what the valley's
18,000 homeless people endure.

By Tanya Flanagan

      A 40-degree night Tuesday descended on the Las Vegas Valley as
hundreds of area teen-agers bedded down in sleeping bags and blankets
and used cardboard boxes or concrete picnic tables to help shelter them
from the chill.

      Camping out in November may sound harsh, but up to 18,000
people in the Las Vegas area go homeless during the cold winter
months and blistering hot summers, according to the Southern Nevada
Homeless Coalition. The number of homeless has remained about the
same over the past two years, said Brian Brooks, coalition chairman
and special projects coordinator with Community Health Centers of

      Based on figures the coalition collected from 1,700 people in 1993,
42 percent of the homeless said they use emergency shelters, 23 percent
sleep in their cars or on the street while 16 percent stay with family or

      The coalition formed in 1990 and is 80 agencies strong. The
agencies help with housing and help homeless people with the transition
back into the work force and into private homes.

      The hope of bringing more attention to the problem in Clark County
prompted more than 200 youths to sleep outside four of the valley's
Catholic churches.

      "It's a chance to see what it's like as a homeless person, and on the
other hand it also makes me grateful I'm not in that position," said
Chase Johnson, a 15-year-old Durango High School sophomore who
was among some 60 youths who gathered at Christ the King Catholic
Community at Torrey Pines Drive and Tropicana Avenue.

     Before spending the night outside, the youths prepared sack lunches
with bologna sandwiches, potato chips and candy for distribution
Wednesday morning at Catholic Charities St. Vincent's Plaza.

      They made quilts covered with spiritual symbols to give to
homeless people.

      The southwest valley church started the program eight years ago. It
has grown to include Our Lady of Las Vegas, Prince of Peace and St.
Anne Catholic churches.

     "Most of these kids come from middle-class families, and it's
something to make them more aware of the problem," said Susan
Searle, director of youth and young adult ministries at the Christ the
King Catholic Church.

      "They really aren't exposed to the homeless except for someone
they see standing on a street," Searle said.

      Meanwhile, valley agencies are working to address the needs of the

      The Southern Nevada Homeless Coalition plans to open on Dec. 1 a
200-bed heated tent facility. The emergency-shelter tent will cost
$294,000 to maintain over the next few months and will be set up next
to the Bob Stupak Mobilized Assistance Shelter for the Homeless at
1559 N. Main St.

      The money is coming from the United Way of Southern Nevada,
the city of Las Vegas, Clark County and churches and businesses, said
Shawna Parker, coalition co-chairwoman.

     Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, the Salvation Army Day
Shelter, The Shade Tree Shelter for Women and Women with Children,
Las Vegas Rescue Mission and the Stupak M*A*S*H Village are the
main providers of shelter and food to most of the area's homeless.

     Combined, they provide about 1,100 beds daily, Brooks said.
Some smaller groups offer housing as needed.

      Each agency, with the exception of the Salvation Army Day Shelter,
33 W. Owens Ave., is expanding its services by adding more beds or
by building new facilities.

      By the year 2000, more than 2,000 beds could be available, but
Brooks said another 1,000 would meet the need more effectively.

      "You can't say all of the people who are homeless are going to live
in a shelter, but we could certainly use 3,000 beds. We could fill them,
but we can't say that number would make us 15,000 beds short or
something like that," Brooks said, referring to the coalition's estimate
of 18,000 homeless people.

     The Shade Tree Shelter, which houses women and children on a
first-come first-serve basis in emergency situations, and M*A*S*H are
fund raising. Catholic Charities also did fund raising within the last year
to gain support for its St. Vincent's Plaza complex under construction at
1501 Las Vegas Blvd. North.

     The new complex, scheduled to be completed by 2000, will have
950 beds for emergency shelter, short-term residential shelter and
long-term transitional living studio apartment units.

      Brenda Dizon, Shade Tree director, disagrees with critics who
argue the shelters, all nestled in the same general area at the corner of
Owens Avenue and Main, are duplicating services. Her shelter takes
only women and children, which Brooks said is the fastest growing
segment of the homeless population. Catholic Charities helps men only,
and M*A*S*H accepts families.

      The solution is more than just beds, Brooks said.

      "You don't want to just offer shelter; you want to get them into case
management, counseling or treatment for drugs or whatever their
ailment or predicament (is), and then into transitional housing and into
affordable housing," he said.

      Mental illness is another contingency that social workers face, he

      "Anywhere from 30 to 55 percent of the homeless population
suffers from some form of mental illness, and a lot of them will not
come into a shelter because they don't trust anybody," Brooks said.

     Dizon tries not to focus on whether services are duplicated because
"the saddest news of all is that there are enough homeless people out
there to keep us all in business."

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