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December 20, 2014

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Portable, personal shelter units make their way to valley’s homeless

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Leila Navidi

Erma Hernandez, who has been homeless in Las Vegas for three years, retrieves her bedding for the evening out of her storage unit on Bonanza Road, where she also keeps her EDAR housing unit, right, on Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Though she has been sleeping in the EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Roof), a compact portable housing unit on wheels, she will not sleep in it tonight for fear that Metro Police will confiscate it from her. The EDAR was given to her by Project Aqua, a local homeless advocacy group.

Project Aqua

Erma Hernandez, who has been homeless in Las Vegas for three years, stands with her EDAR housing unit on Wednesday, May 8, 2013, outside her storage unit on Bonanza Road in Las Vegas. Though she has been sleeping in the EDAR (Everyone Deserves a Roof), a compact portable housing unit on wheels, for the past month or so, she will not sleep in it tonight for fear that Metro Police will confiscate it from her. The EDAR was given to her by Project Aqua, a local homeless advocacy group. Launch slideshow »

Ginger Smith sips on her iced coffee underneath the partial shade outside a Starbucks as a hot April sun beats down on her. She’s at a table with four people from a group called Project Aqua for a meeting.

Smith reaches down to pet Chico – a cocoa brown Chihuahua, her “angel doggie” – sunbathing next to her as she listens. Smith’s hands are leathery and worn and covered in a thin layer of grime, but Chico nuzzles them regardless. A black grocery bag of food sits on Smith’s lap, and another grocery bag with a folded up cardboard sign is on the ground next to her.

The Project Aqua members are discussing the EDAR unit – a mobilized shelter that, when folded up, looks like a cot draped over a shopping cart. Smith just listens, offering her opinion when asked. After all, the EDAR unit concerns her.

Soon – when it’s just her and Project Aqua co-founder Lynn Boland – the Starbucks manager will step outside and ask Smith repeatedly to leave.

“She knows she’s not allowed to be here,” the manager says.

A flash of frustration will flash across Smith’s face, but she won’t argue. It’s nothing new. She’s not wanted here. In fact, she’s not wanted most places she goes. She has no home, no place she can call her own or just be. But that’s why she’s meeting with Project Aqua, a group of friends dedicated to making life for the scores of homeless in Las Vegas just a little bit easier.

The group obtained three EDAR units from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Everyone Deserves a Roof, and Smith, 37, is a candidate for one of them.

“We always considered with the EDARs, if we have a limited amount as we do, that they would go to people more likely to (be exposed) to violence,” said Project Aqua co-founder Eryk Hanut. “We met Ginger, and it was a good timing for her and for us. Overall, everybody deserves such a thing.”

Currently, Smith lives with Chico and her boyfriend on a flat of cardboard behind a boarded-up apartment building just northwest of downtown Las Vegas. They have blankets and food stamps to buy groceries. Smith used to have a tent and a mattress, but the city confiscated them. So for now, a piece of cardboard over gravel is home.

She knows there are shelters where she can stay, but they are few and far between, and most don’t let her bring Chico inside. Smith would rather sleep outside with Chico, even if it means exposing herself to deadly spiders at night, cops forcing her to move during the day and the hot sun. Her thin stature also makes her a target for someone looking to do harm.

“Some nights you be like worrying about stuff crawling on you,” Smith said. “Sometimes in different areas you’re worried people are walking around, and you’re wondering if they might do something to you.”

It’s not an ideal life, she admits, but she survives. She has Chico, and that is all she needs right now. Chico has been Smith’s family since she found him when she became homeless five years ago.

The EDAR would be a welcome improvement.

“It would bring some privacy to me and Chico. Not only that, but when the weather goes bad, we need a tent or something to go in,” Smith said. “It would be like a house to me, not (a house) like some people have, but it would make me feel better.”

Boland and Hanut met Smith about a year ago outside a Walgreens, where Smith often asks for money with a sign. Her current one reads: “Homeless out here, my dog and me, flying this sign ’cause dog food ain’t free. Thank you and God Bless.”

Around the time of the meeting, Boland and Hanut had started Project Aqua. They saw a flaw in services the valley’s homeless receive. Yes, there are shelters and food stamps available, but those shelters are often overcrowded, and many homeless distrust the place that has left them abandoned in the streets.

Those who choose to avoid the shelters are subject to loitering citations and “raids” by police, who scatter them from encampment to encampment, Boland says. Many often lose valuable belongings, from tents to the aluminum cans they’ve collected to earn money to their identification papers, during those “raids.” Smith has lost a tent and her license in those raids.

So Boland and Hanut, along with four other members, began Project Aqua. Hanut cooks and feeds the homeless about twice a day, while Boland checks in with different homeless people she knows to help them with whatever they need in between gaps in her schedule. The group also donates clothes and offers to drive them to the hospital, looking for ways to solve the immediate problems many homeless face.

One of those problems was a lack of alternative shelters available in Las Vegas. Boland was researching solutions for this issue when she discovered the work of EDAR and its mobile shelter units.

“It gives the recipients a greater sense of mobility, but I hope it also opens up the dialog around the need for more options for homeless people for them to be comfortable on a day-to-day basis,” Boland said, “and open up dialog about shelters and what exists, and why what exists is not working for a lot of people.”

The units were designed to provide a short-term, immediate shelter for homeless who are reluctant to enter the shelter system, according to the EDAR website. The four-wheeled unit folds into a cart for transport and into a tent at night. Each costs about $500 to make, and they have been distributed to homeless in the greater Los Angeles area. None had previously existed in Las Vegas.

Boland reached out to the nonprofit and discovered that they had several outdated EDAR units in storage. The nonprofit was willing to part with three.

To collect them, they partnered with nonprofit United Movement Organized Kindness. Project Aqua members want to pass out the units to single women like Smith, who are most vulnerable to attack.

Boland already distributed one to Erma Hernandez. Hernandez, 53, sleeps in it most nights and keeps it in a storage unit during the day so people don’t steal it. The unit has given her added mobility and a shelter she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“I like it. If I push it down the street, everybody says ‘What is that?’ I say, ‘It’s my house, what about it?’” Hernandez said. “I enjoy it, I love it, I can park it anywhere. I can sleep, take a nap and then push it again.”

The units are not much, just a piece of canvass that will hardly be any protection for Hernandez and Smith from the desert sun. The thought worries Boland; it could be dangerous for them.

While Project Aqua waits to obtain the second EDAR for Smith, Boland also is helping her determine whether she would like to move back home to Pampa, Texas, where her mother lives. She’s doing the same for Hernandez, too.

Boland knows the few EDAR units she received aren’t enough to make a dent in the lack of alternative shelters for homeless in Las Vegas, but it’s a start. The group is currently collaborating with the nonprofit, Repurpose America, about a project to recycle used materials to make shelter units. They’ve also spoken with Metro Police, architects and nonprofit Shower to the People to bring showering and toilet facilities to the homeless.

Ultimately, Boland and Project Aqua believe everyone deserves a place they belong. The EDAR would be something Smith can call her own, and hopefully, make a difficult life just a little easier.

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  1. Just too many unskilled potential workers in our community. Our economy cannot support soooo many indigents. Sounds like she has no roots here, no family or friends. Maybe she should consider returning to where-ever she was born, grew up, has family. It's asking a lot to expect those working and barely getting by to step up and cover for her and everyone else. The shelters and charities are there but only for immediate needs. Nevada governments don't seem to fund much to transition into a stable environment. Might be an impossible idea since Vegas attracts those "on the edge" from everywhere else.

  2. Very sad situation all the way around. I can also understand her not wanting to go into a shelter because of her dog. Since I don't know her story, I can't exactly blame her for becoming homeless either. Whatever the reason, it's pointless as she's in this situation now and needs to get out of it.

    But therein lies the question: What are her long-term goals to leave being homeless? What is her plan to get off the streets and stay off? It's really nice of people to help the homeless survive, but what are the goals to break the cycle of sustainability in the streets and become a productive member of society?

    We can talk about mental healthcare issues until we're blue in the face, but again, are we pushing for these programs to help rehabilitate the homeless, or just imprison them under the guise of "health care"? Not only as people who despise the homeless, but those who help them that are burned out?

  3. Homeless, yet sipping a Starbucks iced coofee in the shade with her little doggie. Only in America.

    She actually chooses to live outdoors with her dog because the shelters won't allow the dog.....and I'm suppose to feel sorry for this woman? Sorry, but people who mooch and plunder the system get no sympathy from me.

    Social services are suppose to be a safety net, not a lifestyle.

  4. My big problem with this story is that this group the woman belongs to isn't trying to help her resolve to be an independent person who striving to get off the streets, it's further enabling her to lead a homeless lifestyle in a more comfortable manner.

    And oh no, she cant stay with her dog in a homeless shelter? Boo hoo. Feeding and housing yourself should be more important.

    Enablers. I can't deal with that.