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February 17, 2019

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Critics say regional plan won’t solve the problem


August 13-14, 2005

The various local governments reached a milestone on July 28, adopting the first regional plan to help the homeless.

But while the road traveled in the creation of the plan -- and in winning local officials' votes for it -- has been long, the plan is not what people leading more progressive efforts in other cities say it needed to be.

The Southern Nevada plan attempts to help everyone on the streets, whether they have been there for a week or a decade. It aims to identify gaps in services ranging from restrooms to housing, and attempts to put a dent in the problem -- but not end it.

Goals include increasing housing and intensive case management, as well as treatment for mental illness and addictions.

Alternatively, public and private officials in cities such as San Francisco, Phoenix and New York are saying the following steps could solve the homelessness problem:

Focus on those who have been on the streets the longest.

Get them into housing as soon as possible.

Offer, but don't require, 24-hour help with addictions, mental illness, job training and other services.

This should all be done as part of a plan to end chronic or long-term homelessness in a politically agreed upon time line. The time line that most communities have adopted is 10 years and follows the federal government's lead on the issue.

But Paula Haynes-Green, who until recently was the Las Vegas Valley's first regional homeless services coordinator and the main architect of the new homeless plan, said it is "consistent with what we're seeing in other places" despite the fact that it doesn't propose ending chronic homelessness and has no overall time line, 10 years or otherwise.

"We don't have to call it a '10-year plan to end chronic homelessness' to embrace the core values" of the federal government's push, she said.

It proposes helping "people who are temporarily, episodically and chronically homeless" and has "priorities and strategies and (a way to) implement each strategy with a time line."

In other words, she hopes the plan reaches all of the homeless people in the valley. There are at least 7,800, based on a April 2004 census.

But Haynes-Green doesn't think the regional plan will end homelessness in the valley.

There are just too many reasons why people become homeless, such as domestic violence and layoffs, she said. These are "huge national issues ... and this plan is not going to fix those things."

"I believe we can substantially reduce homelessness and rehouse people more rapidly than we do now," she said.

The model being tried elsewhere, with a strategy called "housing first" at its core, has a high-profile pitchman in former nonprofit worker Philip Mangano, now director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has gained visibility during the Bush administrations.

According to this model, it's the "chronically homeless," as they are labeled by the government, who are the most difficult to move off the streets.

They are also the people society must succeed in helping if the nation is to be successful in addressing homelessness overall, many advocates and the government say.

The effort is not spurred solely by compassion. There also are fiscal equations that have shaped the focus on ending chronic homelessness over the next decade.

The chronically homeless, or those who have been on the streets the longest, take a financial toll that is disproportionately larger than their numbers. Although they make up about 10 percent of the total homeless population nationwide, they use about 50 percent of the resources set aside for the homeless.

Clark County Manager Thom Reilly, who leads a regional committee on homelessness, said that from July 2002 to May 2005, $5.8 million of $10.9 million in local funds for helping the homeless went to 113 chronically homeless people.

One man's story

Consider Richard Ernst's case. During his four years on the streets, he was repeatedly shuttled in and out of jail -- for trespassing, urinating in public and other charges linked to his homelessness.

Ernst was arrested 20 times in a two-year period ending in July 2004, according to the Las Vegas city attorney.

Every day he was in jail cost taxpayers about $85 to house, feed and guard him and not counting the expenses associated with the time of police, judges, prosecutors and public defenders.

During that period, Ernst avoided as much as he could the programs set up for homeless people. The programs, he said, are "like the military," something he knew from firsthand experience and didn't want to relive.

Ernst, 60, served in Korea and Vietnam, earned the rank of sergeant and a Bronze Star and has the "veterans universal access ID" and discharge papers -- as well as recently undertaken physical and psychiatric care at area veteran hospitals -- to prove it.

And while the flashbacks, and even a drinking problem, may still be with him, homelessness is not. For almost a year he has lived in a downtown rooming house. It has proven to be the launching pad he needed to begin addressing some underlying causes of his homelessness, including depression that may have stretched back for decades, said Linda Lera-Randle El, founder of the nonprofit organization Straight From the Streets.

Ernst plucked cigarettes from a pack in his pocket as he unfolded the story of his decline, reaching back to a failed marriage and years of jobs ranging from construction to security.

There was a gradual cutting loose from all family and quadruple bypass heart surgery at age 39.

There were four children, one who died six years ago, all of whom he said were born while he was in the military.

"I never got close to them. I never tried."

As for his time in Vietnam, he said he used to have "bad dreams" nightly and once woke up strangling his wife.

"Now it's about once a month, if that," he said.

Since landing the room not much bigger than a bed and dresser, he also almost ended it all. About seven months ago, Lera-Randle El found him depressed, talking about the war more than usual.

Ernst said that at the time he "got to thinking about suicide."

At least 41 homeless people died on Las Vegas Valley streets last year and 55 the year before that. Seven were suicides, according to Clark County Coroner records.

Before Ernst could add to that statistic, Lera-Randle El called an ambulance and he wound up at Mike O'Callaghan Federal Hospital. Since then, Ernst has gotten psychiatric treatment in addition to a battery of physical exams.

The housing and care are beneficial not only for Ernst but for taxpayers. When he was spinning the proverbial revolving door of the jailhouse, he was costing taxpayers thousands of dollars each year.

And those judicial system costs come on top of at least $24.8 million that was spent on homeless services in Clark County last fiscal year, according to Sun calculations.

Leadership is key

A key feature in launching plans to end chronic homelessness in different cities has been the support of someone who is important but doesn't work directly on the issue.

Angela Alioto, who oversees San Francisco's plan, lost a bid for mayor in 2003 but enjoys the support of her opponent, Mayor Gavin Newsom.

In Phoenix, the 10-year plan as well as a $24 million social-services campus under construction, enjoy the support of city, county and state leaders, many of whom have worked with the homeless in nonprofit organizations.

In Denver, that city's 10-year plan has the backing of the mayor and business community.

"If you look around the country and see where there's been some success, it's because there's some community leadership that's separate from the issue," said Fred Karnas Jr., policy adviser on urban affairs and community development for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.

In Las Vegas, however, Mayor Oscar Goodman has often been a lightning rod for controversy when it comes to the issue.

In part because of his public comments, the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2003 named Las Vegas as the U.S. city that was meanest to the homeless.

In June 2004, during the first statewide conference on ending chronic homelessness, Goodman said he "has no tolerance" for the homeless who "don't want to work."

Afterward, Mangano said Goodman wasn't "all the way there yet" when it comes to the issue.

At a June 16 gathering of local officials where the outline of the regional plan was laid out, Goodman said he would get behind it because "it's better than nothing." He added, however, that more needed to be done "right now" and said he was not optimistic about the plan succeeding.

Goodman also angered some at the gathering when he alleged that people who feed the homeless and give them water "enable them to remain homeless."

The mayor was not at the July 28 meeting of the coalition that backed the plan, but Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Wolfson attended in his place and voted "yes."

Housing first

The strategy at the center of the 10-year model Mangano is pushing reflects the power of a simple, even obvious principle: The homeless need a roof over their heads and don't have years to spare for programs intended to "prepare" them for housing.

Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist, founded New York's Pathways to Housing in 1992 after spending five years trying to help the mentally ill in that city's streets. He spoke at an April conference in Las Vegas. The conference included representatives of nine Western states.

Tsemberis said he began his program "out of complete frustration," realizing that helping homeless men and women with mental illnesses and often addictions -- people such as Ernst -- would be much easier if they had a place to live.

Not to mention the fact that housing "is what they asked for."

More than a decade later, one study has shown that 88 percent of the mentally ill homeless in the Pathways program stayed in housing for five consecutive years -- compared with 47 percent in New York City's system. Another study found nearly 100 percent had stayed in housing for a year.

Hard-core homeless

The federal government defines chronic homelessness as being without permanent housing for a year or four times in three years. As many as half the chronically homeless suffer from mental illness, and many, if not most, have addictions, studies have found.

Focusing on the chronically homeless is important because "they're the most visible and cause the most public concern, and they're using so many services and not getting anywhere," Tsemberis said.

Lera-Randle El said "the tentacles attached to the chronically homeless are far-reaching" and that her efforts to get them into housing often involve devoting years and visiting up to 15 aid sources before making progress.

In Ernst's case, the process of applying for food stamps, Social Security disability and veteran's medical benefits was more than he could handle on his own, he said.

"Unless there's someone there who knows where you can go, you're going to stay on the street," he said.

To make matters worse, in the year or so Lera Randle-El was working to get Ernst off the streets, repeated arrests for misdemeanor offenses made him miss appointments for his benefits.

Finally, after he was released from a nine-week jail stint in August 2004, Lera-Randle El got him into a housing program for veterans.

But that didn't work out because the program's rules made him feel "like it was going from one jail to another," he said.

Now, however, "I know whenever I want to I can get up and go to the store," he said. "I may not want to, but it's the idea that I can that counts.

"I feel like I'm living like a normal human being again."

Tsemberis said programs like Straight From the Streets and his own work because they don't force participants to do anything to keep their housing -- although they also don't abandon them.

His program has no admission requirements other than being homeless and mentally ill, and services are available all the time, but not required. He has seen cases where people in the program have "failed" two times -- winding up back on the streets or on drugs -- but stayed in housing on the third try.

He calls this "structure with flexibility."

Lera-Randle El follows a similar approach.

After Ernst walked out of the housing program for veterans, she found him on the streets near an employment office. Ernst, despite his drunkenness, depression and medical problems that the Veterans Administration would diagnose months later, still sought work from time to time.

She got him into his room and he has stayed there since. He still drinks, but said he's "working on that." Straight From the Streets paid his rent the first few months, and Ernst began receiving monthly Social Security disability checks in April.

Tsemberis said focusing on the chronically homeless "will have an impact in any city ... and remoralize people to think they can solve this problem (of homelessness).

"Especially since programs set up to serve this population are not working."

How we got here

In 2001, Goodman, federal Housing and Urban Development and county officials held a summit. That meeting got off to a bad start when the county brought a video highlighting its efforts to help the homeless, riling Las Vegas officials.

That year, Goodman launched a task force of private-sector people and elected officials from area municipalities.

Goodman stressed that the "homeless corridor" downtown, with four nonprofit organizations working on the issue, was putting too much burden on Las Vegas. The problem, he said, was valleywide and all municipalities should deal with it.

The group developed a five-point regional plan to "reduce homelessness" in January 2002. The plan went through at least three drafts. Task force members argued over who should oversee the plan.

Then, after voters in November 2002 rejected a property tax increase that had been proposed as a way of funding the plan, the task force quietly folded in late 2003.

Each fall, area advocates would beseech local governments to fund emergency shelter during the winter, although nothing was sought in the summer. Dozens died because of exposure to cold or heat.

After Goodman's task force disbanded, another regional committee formed. In place of elected officials whose main concern might be votes, this committee included city and county managers, who were charged with getting things done. The new committee came out of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition. Clark County Manager Thom Reilly is chairman of the committee.

One of its first orders of business was creating an emergency shelter plan for the winter. The group also set about hiring a regional coordinator, whose main task was developing a new plan for the valley, securing its funding and guaranteeing its implementation.

Now that Haynes-Green has been transferred to a new job overseeing $4.2 million in first-ever state funds to help the homeless, a new regional coordinator must be named.

Still, securing private funding is one of the main jobs ahead of whoever is chosen, and this will be key to the plan's success.

Meanwhile, during the period from the 2001 summit to the recent completion of the plan, Las Vegas, the state or Metro Police swept at least eight homeless camps ranging from several dozen to hundreds of homeless men, women and children -- often shuffling some of the same people from one place to another.

Many in those camps were chronically homeless.

Metro continues to try to expand its role in dealing with such camps and is currently interviewing for a "homeless liaison."

The position, which experts have said is unique, will be filled by a citizen whose job will include trying to prevent sweeps in the future, Metro officials have said.

No more status quo

San Francisco's Alioto has the challengek of leading a group of 35 community leaders down the road of ending chronic homelessness in her city.

Alioto says what you call your plan is important, and that's why she is following Mangano's lead.

"You must have the word, 'end' and you must have a time line because otherwise it's illusory and it's what we've been doing for 20 years," she said.

Alioto, as chairwoman of San Francisco's 10-year planning council, is working in what may be the nation's most notorious city when it comes to the homeless.

With a population of about 800,000, San Francisco has as many as 15,000 homeless people, Alioto said. It is believed to be the highest per-capita homeless population in the country.

To accomplish getting the hardcore homeless off the streets, San Francisco is pursuing a model that borrows from Tsemberis -- " 'permanent, supportive housing' are the magic words," Alioto said.

Alioto, whose "day job" is a civil rights attorney, said her plan is aimed at getting 3,000 of the most hard-core homeless into housing.

She also said it took her 20 years to learn that the "old-time, status quo shelters and transitional housing don't work."

San Francisco has seven shelters, and Alioto hopes to convert all of them into 24-hour health clinics for the general population.

Shelters and so-called "transitional housing" have traditionally been the lower rungs on the ladder that is called the "continuum of care," a series of services that HUD has funded since the late 1980s.

Many larger organizations in the Las Vegas Valley have created programs in this mold that attempt to gradually move the homeless into permanent housing.

The idea behind this system is that many homeless people are not ready for housing and need to move slowly toward getting a roof over their heads in stages, with treatment required along the way.

But the growing number of people around the country who want to reverse years of growing pessimism about homelessness say that model needs to be discarded.

HUD itself is changing its focus toward housing in annual grants.

Not everyone who works with the homeless agrees with that shift. Brother David Buer -- a Franciscan who butted heads with local municipalities for years by pleading for shelter during the coldest months -- said cutting out shelters and other emergency services is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

"Yes we do want them (the homeless) to move on with their lives but they still have to meet their basic needs," Buer said.

Are shelters needed?

Buer now works outside Tucson and commented on the Phoenix area, another fast-growing desert community. The homeless population is about 15,000 in Maricopa County, which has a population of about 3.3 million, officials said.

Buer pointed to a project due to be completed this fall called the Human Services Campus: a one-stop source of services ranging from shelter to health care that cost $24 million in public and private money.

Wayne D. Parker works for the Piper Trust, a private foundation in Phoenix that gave $1 million to the project.

His job is to see what works and what doesn't, to make sure the foundation's money really helps the community.

Parker said a problem with many programs for the homeless is that they "get funded by the number of people served, and there is relatively little acknowledgement of what makes a useful program."

The foundation is taking a wait-and-see approach with the campus to see if it makes a dent in the Phoenix area's homeless problem, he said. He also said that he is concerned about a centralized center such as the campus leading to "the ghettoization of the homeless."

The emergency shelters, clinics and transitional housing of Las Vegas have been centralized for at least a decade in an area near Owens Avenue and Main Street.

That is where the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Shade Tree are located, and where MASH Village was until it closed because of a lack of funds in 2002. MASH Village was originally built to be a sort of homeless services campus in 1994.

Haynes-Green said that regardless of any new strategies laid out in the valley's plan, services in the "homeless corridor" are still needed.

"There's not going to be a point where a line is drawn in the sand and today we do this and tomorrow we do that," she said.

"We're going to look at all the different populations and see what each needs ... (and) emergency shelter is probably going to be a component of serving the homeless for some time to come."

In Arizona, Karnas, who has worked with the homeless for 20 years, said the campus and models like it have to "fit into the bigger picture."

The community can't be led to believe such a project -- with its emphasis on services, shelter and transitional housing -- can solve homelessness, or "there will be backlash."

The bigger picture, Karnas said, includes housing.

"Unless we solve the housing piece we're not going to do anything to move them (the homeless) to the next stage."

Bigger picture

Tsemberis put it this way: "Affordable housing is a bigger problem than helping the chronic homeless."

The chronically homeless are an important first step because of the need to politically motivate governments and businesses to tackle homelessness, he said.

And Alioto said the money saved by getting that group into housing can then be plowed back into helping the rest of the homeless population.

But "the larger issue of poverty is the context and this is not getting addressed by federal and state governments," Tsemberis said.

"There are people living in shelters that are working two jobs."

Locally, affordable housing was identified by a growth task force as the key issue facing the valley earlier this year.

And Lera-Randle El's success with people such as Ernst is only reached because she has developed hard-won relationships with landlords in her four decades as a valley resident that lead her to low-rent rooms or apartments.

The list of places, however, is dwindling, she said.

Some of the factors driving up the cost of buying homes or renting apartments locally include a drop in the amount of prime land for development and a spike in the number of rental apartments being converted to condominiums.

Renting is the most viable path to housing for the homeless.

Of about 165,000 occupied apartments in the valley, as many as 16,000 -- nearly one of every 10 -- are currently being or soon will be converted into condominiums.

From the end of 2003 to the end of March, the average local monthly rent rose from $768 to $825, an increase of nearly 7.5 percent, according to Spencer Ballif, senior vice president of CB Richard Ellis, which tracks real estate. Rents are expected to jump 10 percent in the course of the year, he added.

Haynes-Green said the region's plan on homelessness has "to look at leasing rather than building housing.

"Because of rising land prices, I don't see our first move out the door being to build housing," she said.

She said that the plan recommends "utilizing existing rental housing ... spread out on scattered sites."

Will they come?

At April's federally hosted conference on chronic homelessness, Goodman launched the event with a story about "Mr. Bevins," a homeless man he has talked to on the streets.

Goodman said he is "usually a person who jokes around -- but ... with chronic homelessness there's nothing to joke about."

Then he said he had offered Bevins a place to live, but the man always turned it down.

"We can build beautiful buildings out of rubble. Can we make a man stand up tall?" the mayor said.

After the conference, Tsemberis said, "My focus is on people like Bevins."

He said it sometimes takes building trust with people who have lived a long time on the streets before making such an offer, and even then the person making the offer has to listen as much as talk.

In Ernst's case, Lera Randle-El said she first met the veteran when he sitting on a curb with a bottle, but she never offered him anything he didn't want.

Tsemberis believes that "nobody wants to be homeless ... (and) if you offer something consistent with their version of themselves and what they want ... they will gladly get off the streets."

Tsemberis said there needs to be a "respectful, compassionate approach" to the offer, and that approach needs to continue after the homeless person moves into housing.

Recently, however, Goodman said he didn't believe such approaches would ever work with people such as Bevins.

"I think they're fairy tales, these models," he said.

The mayor said that absent the legal authority to commit certain hard-core, mentally ill homeless people to some kind of live-in facility with psychiatric care, he didn't think there was a way to help them.

On another occasion, Goodman also said that the conferences he has been to and the meetings he has had with people from across the nation have not convinced him that the chronically homeless can be taken off the streets. He said he has more faith in being able to help those who are willing to enroll in programs and accept the help those programs offer.

As for the rest, he said, "I want somebody to come up with a magic bullet."

Tsemberis says a magic bullet isn't needed, just persistence, places for the homeless to live and the back-up services they need.

"I have not found people on the street yet who do not want help in some way," he said.

"They will come -- but on their own terms."

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