Sunday, Nov. 22, 1998 | 9:28 a.m.
The garbage bag full of day-old doughnuts landed on the front steps of the Las Vegas homeless shelter just before mealtime.
A murmur passed through the 50 homeless men huddled there. As they began to stir, the scents of sweat, alcohol and tobacco mingled in the brisk November wind.
The bag was ripped open and the doughnuts toppled onto the concrete.
Dozens of hands reached outward.
An excited squeal came from the back of the homeless mob.
"Look, doughnuts! Doughnuts!" 9-year-old Richard Morris Jr. cried, standing on his tiptoes.
By the time he got to the front of the pack, all that was left was a torn bag and some day-old crumbs.
The scene was just one tiny part of a nightmare being lived by the Morris family, who are part of a growing segment of the Las Vegas homeless population -- families with children, living hand to mouth on the street.
It's a nightmare, too, for social agencies and the Clark County School District, whose resources cannot begin to cope with the problem.
"It is a terrible problem here," said Ina Dorman, who runs a one-person program of outreach to the homeless for Clark County schools. "It's amazing how many children are out there."
Estimates on the number of homeless Las Vegas children at any given time range from 4,000 to 8,000 based on various formulas developed by government and social service agencies.
While agencies cannot agree on the number of children on the streets, they are unanimous in stating that the need for services to homeless children vastly exceeds their capabilities.
There are fewer than 100 shelter beds for homeless families in Clark County, said Marlene Richter, social services director for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.
One hundred beds, when a thousand would not be enough.
For young Richard's father, Richard Morris Sr., the past few weeks were the worst nightmare imaginable.
Within a week he'd lost his job and his home and was on the street with his four children. He and his wife, Cheri, he said, had lost their rent money one quarter at a time -- into a video poker machine.
Three homeless shelters turned them away -- there just wasn't room.
"The only place left was the Salvation Army. I'm really glad they had some room for us. Otherwise, I don't know what I would have done. I've never been homeless before," the 38-year-old machinist explained.
Morris and his children ended up sleeping on the floor of the shelter, shoulder-to-shoulder with about 50 men. His wife stayed with a friend and then in another homeless shelter.
"We slept on mats only an inch thick," young Richard recalled. "There were men there that smelled like rotten eggs because they wouldn't take showers. Another man snored all night."
He said his father told him to be careful.
"Dad didn't say why we had to be careful, but we knew why. There were bad men there. Some of them had knives. I saw two them get in a fist fight in the bathroom. One of them thought the other guy had stolen his towel."
Eventually, the Morris family was reunited through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a coalition of churches that provides shelter to families.
"I can say without a doubt that the number of homeless families is growing in Las Vegas. We are seeing more and more people seeking help," Richter said.
Homelessness is a problem in all U.S. cities, but social workers say it is more severe in Las Vegas for a variety of reasons.
Aside from the more common national causes of homelessness -- substance abuse and mental illness -- the main reasons for a larger population of homeless children in Las Vegas are threefold:
* The city has become a haven for runaways, many of whom have babies of their own.
* Many low-skilled workers have come here seeking work with their families and have yet to find employment.
* A larger number of people in Las Vegas have gambling addictions and are losing their homes and being evicted because of their inability to pay rent or mortgage payments.
A 1995 study conducted by Fred Preston, a UNLV sociology professor, found that at least 7.5 percent of Clark County residents believe they have a gambling problem, compared to a national average of about 2.5 percent.
Subhead: Short-term facilities
Most of the shelter beds available in Las Vegas are geared toward accommodating people for less than a month, said Valerie Finley, executive director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network.
Shelter directors say there is constant pressure to free up beds so that other homeless people can be helped.
The Morris family, for example, now is in one of the more desirable Las Vegas shelter programs, Interfaith Hospitality Network. But even with that organization they must move to a different church building every week in order to have a place to stay.
Oftentimes beds are set up in Sunday school rooms for the families to use, and the members of the congregation bring meals.
"I don't know if Santa will know where to go this year," young Richard Morris said. "We keep moving every week. I guess I've been good. I go to sleep on time every night."
He's hoping Santa will bring a remote-control car and some walkie-talkies.
He says he really misses the bunk beds he and his brother shared when they had a permanent place to stay.
Subhead: Second chance goes awry
Like many families, the Millsaps came to Las Vegas looking for a second chance to have a quality life.
Instead, Joe Lewis Millsap is raising his three children on the streets.
They spend their days on a blanket in a Las Vegas park. At night he and his children, ranging in age from 4 to 13, sneak into a vacant trailer nearby and sleep on bare mattresses strewn about the floor.
Millsap, 62, says he is disabled, unable to work and ended up in a dispute with his landlord, with the result that he and his children were asked to leave.
He came to Las Vegas from Arkansas to be close to be relatives. About seven years ago, he says, he accidentally shot himself in the head. He now suffers from frequent seizures.
He is afraid the owner of the trailer will find out about his family and that their nights, too, will then be spent on the streets.
Families such as the Millsaps are harder to take off the streets because disabilities make it harder for the breadwinner to find work, and it is often difficult to find housing they can afford on the Social Security benefits they may be receiving.
Jesse Woloszyn, 4, doesn't remember his worst days on the street very well. Now he's staying with his parents at a longer-term shelter run by the MASH Village.
"When we were on the street, we used to push him around in a shopping cart," his father, John, says. "We had to be really careful because while some people on the street are pretty nice, some of them aren't. We were just so glad to end up in a place like this."
When asked what he remembered about moving among the Las Vegas Valley's various shelters, all the blonde-haired pre-schooler recalled was that "some of them had pretty good toys -- new ones."
Subhead: Legal hindrances
Often state law and inadequate resources tie the hands of social service agencies that want to help homeless children.
"If a runaway shows up at our homeless shelter, we have to turn her away because under state law we are not allowed to work with children without parental permission," Richter said.
Many runaway girls are raising babies on the street because they fear the child will be taken away from them and placed in foster care if they go to the authorities seeking help, she said.
Their fears are well-founded, said Rick Koca, executive director of Stand Up for Kids, a new Las Vegas outreach to runaways.
"These kids come from abusive homes. They have been lied to so often. Their level of trust is pretty low. The reality is that the baby may be taken away from them. They are often told that is not the case. But that's not always true."
But Adrienne Cox, assistant director of the Clark County Department of Family and Youth Services, said her agency tries to work with teenage mothers to provide shelter for both.
Her agency has more power to work with children, including runaways, than do social service agencies, such as Catholic Charities.
"It's a difficult situation. If a 16-year-old with a baby shows up, we can provide shelter for both. But if a 19-year-old and a baby show up, we can only provide shelter for the baby because one is now considered an adult."
An adult raising a child on the street is not in itself reason for the Clark County Department of Family and Youth Services to intervene, Cox said.
"Don't get me wrong. I don't think raising a child in a car is swell. But we have really changed our philosophy on intervention over the last 20 years. We are no longer the person in the white hat riding in to take a child away."
She also adds that Clark County does not have adequate facilities to provide for many homeless children in its shelter, Child Haven. Most of the beds there are used by children who are the victims of deliberate abuse or severe neglect.
Richter said that, in her years of working with the Las Vegas homeless population, she has rarely seen Family and Youth Services intervene in a case reported by a social service agency.
"Part of the problem is once you make a report, how do they keep track of the family? They're homeless. They don't have a permanent address, so they're difficult to monitor," she said.
"We are always overcrowded here," Cox said. "But we do try. We will only intervene if we think a child is in danger of imminent harm.
"It's very rare that we would take a child into custody if we have a caring mom who is doing her best."
Subhead: Prostitution factor
Illegal prostitution is another reason for babies being raised on the street.
"These runaways come to Las Vegas and end up getting involved in all kinds of unseemly activities, and they end up getting pregnant," said Garth Winckler, president of the United Way of Southern Nevada.
A Stanford University study found that 42 percent of all runaways are sexually exploited within 48 hours of leaving home, Koca said.
There are four main ways a homeless child can survive on the streets: prostitution, dealing drugs, theft and begging, he said.
"Teens are a really tough homeless population to deal with because they have spent their lives being abused," Koca said. "They don't trust adults readily. There is a constant fear that they are going to be turned in and returned to their homes. Most of these kids have fled abusive situations."
The fear could be seen in the eyes of one Las Vegas teen living in a shanty town in North Las Vegas.
As two visitors stopped and asked his name, he just shook his head and said, "Don't tell anyone about us. They'll come and tear our place down."
The young man, who looked about 14, lived in a tiny shelter made of scrap lumber, discarded signs, shopping carts and old mattresses. He and dozens of neighbors formed their own invisible community along a railroad right-of-way.
The teen lived there with his trusty mutt, Bear. He fed the dog scraps as he cooked a chicken leg over a fire.
Subhead: Schools' efforts criticized
Dorman said the school district is not devoting adequate resources to helping homeless children.
While she says there are thousands on the street, she says the district has only 450 in the classrooms.
"I'm spending way too much time working on paperwork and not enough time out looking for homeless children," she said.
She says more staff is needed to locate homeless children and get them in school. Not only do younger children benefit from the classroom experience, they also receive free school lunches.
But unlike most school districts, Dorman says Clark County does not provide free lunches for high school students.
Instead, it contracts with fast-food vendors to sell meals to students in the school cafeteria.
"It's a bad situation because children learn better when they aren't hungry. These homeless kids just can't afford to buy their meals."
Even children living in shelters, who are fed there, are reliant on the school meals.
"When we were at the Salvation Army, I got really sick," Richard Morris Jr. said. "I just kept throwing up and throwing up for days. Finally, my dad just started buying food at a store and feeding us."
Subhead: Tagged as outsiders
State Sen. Joe Neal said the state needs to take a larger role in helping the disadvantaged.
"A lot of people try to assuage their feelings on the issue by saying these people aren't from Nevada. They all came here from somewhere else," he said. "Well, the way I look at is those children are here, and they need help. We have a responsibility to try and help."
But Rota Rosaschi, chief of benefits and support for Nevada's welfare division, said the state is doing a good job of helping low-income people.
"Let's say a family of three applies. We can get them food stamps and $348 a month in cash benefits," she said. "The problem is that many homeless families aren't making contact with us. If it weren't for the benefits we offer, a lot more people would be homeless."
Rosaschi said the state has as long as 45 days to process a welfare application before a family actually receives a check. But she said the state averages 28 days.
But Richter said these welfare benefits are not nearly adequate to get a family off the streets.
"It has been my experience that it takes a full 45 days for a family to get benefits. And even when they get their benefits, I don't care what neighborhood you look in, I think you would be hard pressed to find anything that you could rent for $348 a month. Where are they supposed to get the deposit money for the apartment?"
Based on 1995 data, Nevada ranks 31st in the nation in the amount of cash benefits it gives residents, said Myla Florence, administrator of the state Welfare Division.
"I think you'll find that Nevadans are generous and compassionate, and they are also very conservative," said Charlotte Crawford, director of the Nevada Department of Human Services.
Subhead: Charitable giving lags
Another reason for inadequate resources in dealing with homeless children is because the rates of charitable giving and volunteerism in Las Vegas lag well behind national averages.
The per capita rate of charitable giving is about half the national average, Winckler said.
A United Way campaign here raises on average $6.80 per resident per year. The national average is $14.
Winckler said the rate of people volunteering also is far below that in other U.S. cities.
The rapid influx of many new residents has not fostered the sense of community in Las Vegas that often inspires people to give their time and money, he said.
"It happens every November. We are deluged with calls from people who want to come help feed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have more than enough then.
"But what we really need is people to help us other times of the year. I've never been able to get someone who has volunteered over the holidays to work past January. People want to get on with their lives. They don't want to think about the homeless."