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July 28, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

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

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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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