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April 17, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

In a sobering effort to count our homeless, this man knows where to look


Leila Navidi

Guide Neil Jurgensen, left, helps volunteer Ken LoBene, director of the Las Vegas office of Housing and Urban Development, during a census of the homeless in Clark County in downtown Las Vegas early in the morning on Thursday, January 24, 2013.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

It’s 3 a.m. Thursday, we’re searching for and counting the homeless, and Neil Jurgensen is our guide.

Jurgensen, 49, spent 20 years living as an alcoholic on the ragged edge of the community, alternating among overfilled shelters, weekly motels, and the sidewalks of Owens and Sahara.

Now sober two years and living at Salvation Army Safe Haven, Jurgensen volunteered as a guide on the valley’s every-other-year homeless census, in which nonprofit groups and government agencies, including police, come together to count the homeless. It’s a mandate of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it could help us get federal dollars to reduce chronic homelessness.

We gather at Catholic Charities, one of several staging areas, drink watery coffee and head out in small groups. Our group of a half-dozen or so walk west on Owens, up the hill.

Along the way, Jurgensen explains that he came to Las Vegas more than 20 years ago from Santa Barbara, Calif., to get away from his drinking pals.

“Which didn’t make sense. Leave your party buddies to come to a 24-hour town? Where I wound up was where I was,” he says ruefully.

The hard drinking in his 20s while working as a cook and a waiter at the old Desert Inn and then the New Frontier, both long ago imploded, led to voracious need and physical addiction and the loss of friends and family.

Once, he called his father, a retired naval aviator, and Jurgensen says this is what happened: “What makes you think I want to talk to you?” Click.

By his early 30s, in and out of rehab programs, he was no longer functional. His life dissolved into what he described simply as “existing.”

Under a railroad pass, our census team counts a few homeless, but Jurgensen predicts the area around the tracks will be empty. “I don’t think you’ll find too many. The railroad police have been cracking down,” he says.”

Jurgensen is an excellent guide, knowledgeable about where the homeless seek protection from bandits, weather and the law.

We pass a young woman who is likely a prostitute, and Jurgensen notes on his form, “One female, 18-24.” When I suggest that she looks much older, he replies, “Once you start using serious drugs, it happens.”

We think of the chronically homeless as on the streets, panhandling and getting high and drunk.

Homeless Census 2013

Volunteers conduct a census of the homeless in Clark County on A Street and Washington Avenue in downtown Las Vegas early in the morning on Thursday, January 24, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Jurgensen describes something much different, still grasping — his metaphorical hands no doubt weakened by drink — to some stable, dignified life.

He tried to stop drinking in the evening so he could get in one of the shelters, which have zero-tolerance policies about drugs and alcohol. His day was a triangle: breakfast at Catholic Charities, lunch at Salvation Army, dinner at the Rescue Mission. He had a backpack with clothes and always a library book — science fiction helped him forget about this world.

He could never bring himself to panhandle. After he was no longer employable in the hotels, he would go to Labor Ready on Main Street and try to find work two or three days a week that would pay cash at day’s end. With an acquaintance — there are no friends on the street, only acquaintances, he says — he might get a weekly motel room. The rest of the money was for food and booze.

The booze was not optional. To feel normal, he needed a half pint of vodka in the morning, often saving some from the night before because he knew he would need it. He’d wake up and get down a few swallows, the only thing that could stop the terrible shakes, which were so bad that he had to hold himself up against a wall to get dressed.

There was no buzz, no joyous carousing. “I’d feel better, but I’d never feel good.”

He wants the public to know that at a certain point, physical addiction to drugs or alcohol goes beyond simple willpower and the ability to say no to temptation.

At Washington and A Street by the freeway, we find 18 homeless.

The 2011 count found 9,432 on the streets, in tents and cars, as well as in shelters.

These are what experts would call the chronically homeless, usually comprising about 10 percent of the homeless population, but also presenting the most expensive and difficult problems for police and our health care infrastructure.

Like many communities that have had success reducing the number of chronically homeless, we use an approach called “housing first.” The idea is to put this population in housing first and then focus on necessary mental health and substance abuse treatment, which seems to work better than demanding they get sober and take their medication before we give them housing. Our population of chronically homeless declined 28.5 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Jurgensen, who for decades suffered from severe chronic depression and treated it with alcohol, says we need more mental health services. On this point, he’s in agreement with Metro Police, the valley’s hospitals and health care providers, social workers — just about everyone, in fact — but somehow there’s never the money to actually do anything about it.

The governor’s budget includes money for an urgent care center for the mentally ill, which is a start, but only that.

At another railroad underpass on Washington, people are sleeping on the narrow steel beams, almost perfectly camouflaged, barely visible. We whisper so as not to disturb them — as if, I’m embarrassed to say, we’re on a safari. A train passes over the bridge moments later.

We head north on Main. Jurgensen, who was in detox at WestCare 18 times, attributes his sobriety to an act of God.

“I’ve always been Christian, and I’ve always been told God can relieve you of that desire. And that’s what happened.” He credits the Salvation Army with saving his life.

Unfortunately, Salvation Army is closing the facility where he lives because there’s no money, so he has two months to figure something out. He’s anxious, not wanting to go backward, and he also suffers from heart disease and needs valve surgery.

He’s out counting the homeless Thursday morning because he wants to help, to give back.

He’d like to work with homeless addicts someday. I ask how he deals with all the wasted years, the regrets. “I realize the past is in the past, and I have a future to look forward to. Hopefully, I can use my past to help someone not repeat it.”

We’re back at Catholic Charities, having counted several dozen homeless. We won’t know the final, countywide count for some time.

It’s early morning and I’m going home. Jurgensen is headed back out to count more homeless.

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  1. Another excellent article. The attempt to telephone Dad says a lot. No wonder the man has chronic depression.... JPC, do ya see or agree that I recognize the NEED for dormitory housing solutions for many? Transition from homeless AND for others such as semi-disabled, semi-handicapped, semi-mainstream? We need to finally recognize that it's not all black or white. Not all American Dream family with house or completely shiftless. I would think that dormitory living would be the goal, not the transition for many people. And in either case, we need to FOCUS DHHS into thinking of ways to provide ESSENTIAL SERVICES to Americans. Let's stop requiring giving birth to qualify for assistance and deal with the issues people face alone.

  2. Bradley, many develop mental illnesses as you say. But many have those illnesses perhaps starting with self esteem issues--when they are born to parents with varying ideas of what parental responsibilities are. What does a kid do when Mom and Dad don't care about anything? Maybe they see that the kids are fed, yelled at, told to shut up, no school clothes provided, no toys, only television as a babysitter? What does a kid do when s/he sees class mates with real parents? When other kids' parents are actually interested in the kids and what the kids think? THIS is a large part of why I am decidedly AGAINST WELFARE. I accept the right to chose abortion (up to 20 weeks) but I don't advocate it. Almost anyone can produce a child--but the child should NOT be used as a means to a livelihood NOR as treated as a burden. We have barren people who go out-of-country for adoption. Stop this. TAKE the kids out of frightful home situations and sever parental rights. Give these kids a chance. Further, this would cut the birth rate markedly--the birth rate (by use of contraception) of those who refuse to parent their kids and those who refuse to financially support their kids.

  3. As we move deeper into the Obama Economy, I have to wonder what these people who seem to think Homelessness is caused by being drunk or on drugs, what they will do when they lose everything and struggle to survive. Will they panhandle for money to buy a can of Pepsi?? Or a bottle of booze?

  4. TomD: is the alcohol/drugs the chicken or the egg? Granted many homeless consume. What would you be doing if you lived out there? If a small bottle of wine would help you stay warm sleeping on cardboard? I still advocate dorms. Social Services / the shelters could charge something, provide the address / phone number, have locking individual rooms with common kitchens to help homeless folks transition--those people who are willing to work for their keep. We've all seen those who are trying IF we've checked out the thrift stores, food banks, shelters run by Sally Ann, Catholic Community.... It is past time for Nevada DHHS to DO SOMETHING for homeless, single adults and teens instead of dumping endless funding to pregnant young mothers--and yes, many many of them are illegal moms. Do something for our Vets and displaced workers.

  5. stopthebs: Not to be argumentative, but.... Perhaps the real question is:
    Does the cost of emergency room "health care" for one homeless person exceed the cost to GIVE him/her a dorm room? Or the cost to our safety on the streets? These people already (usually) qualify for EBT food stamps, Medicaid, and sporadic programs that don't require custody of a child. I'm NOT for much in the social welfare world but THESE people are in need with limited options. We can "blame" it on K-12 or the parents or everybody but the facts of life are simply that children WITHOUT CARE and nurturing don't ever grow up into functioning adults. Some can fake a semblance IF they get some guidance along the way by observing "normal" behavior, by reading (if they can read), from social workers, from non-profit intervention, from "life skills" training forced upon them by the government. Our SOP of paying non-self-reliant girls to chuck out babies, pay them to "raise" the kids and leave them to the fates is just not working well. We have another $10 million for Syrian refugees but nothing more for hungry American seniors and street people. OK, some homeless came from "good" homes but as someone else mentioned above, they were "discarded" by family.

    Perhaps the problem is no worse than it's always been. But from time immemorial we have been beneficent -- although we dump much of our wealth outside the country. I'm suggesting TARGETED assistance to those who can again become PRODUCTIVE taxpayers and perhaps to those we can encourage to the point of LESS DEPENDENCY on substances and on society.

    I recall a program out of New York where social workers GAVE housing to homeless--it was cost effective. Much less expense to Medicaid and ER's because those with say epilepsy weren't seizing out in public but able to have a small efficiency apartment, food stamps, regular "free clinic" check ups.

  6. Count the empty beer cans on any given weekend and divide by 6. There's your number.

    Plus, you can recycle the cans and Save The Planet from certain Death and Destruction from Man Made Global Warming/Climate Change, or whatever the left wants to call it today.


  7. Oh ya, and welcome to the Obama Economy that you folks at the Sun lust over so dearly.

    We could all be homeless soon.

    The best thing to do is first hate rich people.

    Obama's Recession.

  8. Obama's Recession? Well ja. Remember all the hype about doing for our Veterans. Well many of them are out there on the streets. What's O. doing? Trying to con us into amnesty for illegals. What's he doing for homeless Veterans? Same thing that he's doing for discarded teens--NOTHING. I mean, they're AMERICANS and are left without services.

  9. It is a well-known, sociological fact that THE MORE WE CARE FOR THE HOMELESS, THE MORE HOMELESS THERE'LL BE. According the Marx's dictum, "From each according to his ability to each according to his need," means that the end result is the socialistic collapse of society.

    That is where we are headed, folks.

  10. So let's not "care" for the homeless especially illegals and mothers-as-career-instead-of supporting self. Let's CONSIDER those who are trying, really trying, to be self sufficient but have had negligible support from shiftless parents and extended family, who "grew up" on their own and DON'T KNOW HOW to make a considered decision. I'm not suggesting intensive 24/7 hospital care or full blown housing/food/health care without productive work. How about 6-12 months in dormitory housing while the individual sorts things out? Provide up to once a week or once a month "counseling" where an individual could discuss it with a PRACTICAL adult who has some real ideas on what it's like for the clients. They can use their food stamps or go to the soup kitchens. They've been getting by without health care, without clothing support, without so the cost to do the same for them is pretty minimal.