Las Vegas Sun

December 15, 2017

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He was ready; help was there

A new, more active approach to aiding the chronically homeless has begun to pay off


Sam Morris

For years, Charles Jones lived on the streets, drinking and smoking crack and rejecting offers of assistance. When, at age 55, he was finally ready for help, Linda Lera-Randle El’s Straight from the Streets program got him into an apartment, then provided help with his addictions.

Click to enlarge photo

Homeless advocate Linda Lera-Randle El testifies before the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee in 2003 in Carson City. Lera-Randle El's approach of going to potential clients rather than waiting for them to seek help has gained support in government circles.

In 2004, state legislators budgeted $4.2 million for helping the hard-core homeless. It was the first time the state had targeted money at the issue.

At the time, this meant nothing to Charles Jones. Several months later, he woke up near a fence on A Street downtown and decided he wanted out of smoking four or five $20 bags of crack a day and drinking a case of beer and a half-gallon of Jack Daniels a week. After seven years of living on the streets, Jones, then 55, had lifted his head a bit.

Enter Linda Lera-Randle El. Director of the nonprofit organization Straight from the Streets, she had reached her own turning point of sorts.

After years of helping homeless people like Jones off the streets without government money, she agreed to participate in the state-funded pilot project in which six organizations would target the problem of chronic homelessness. A minority in number, the chronically homeless are the men and women who stay on the streets the longest, often costing the system more than the rest combined as they cycle through jails, emergency rooms and shelters.

“I thought I would have to sell out,” Lera-Randle El said about taking the state money. A decade earlier, she had served as interim director for MASH Village, a homeless shelter that received public money and eventually folded amid controversy in 2003. “But then I thought I also would have a lot more people at my back,” she said.

The funding would go to a larger nonprofit organization, HELP of Southern Nevada, which in turn would distribute money to agencies treating mental illness and addiction, as well as Lera-Randle El’s group.

Saying yes was also easier for Lera Randle-El because the money came with few strings attached, basically allowing her to formalize what was an unconventional way of working with a group many see as intransigent.

“These are people who don’t fit in other programs,” Lera-Randle El said.

Four years later, the pilot project has become permanent, now relying on funding from Clark County. And Straight from the Street’s approach has become almost standard for the other organizations: Get out of the office and go where the chronically homeless live — in tunnels, alleys and washes. Build relationships with patience and care. Offer housing “straight from the streets,” without putting up hurdles such as going straight or sober first. Make round-the-clock services available to the formerly homeless in their new apartments. Be flexible.

The success of this approach, called “housing first” by experts in social services, has been documented elsewhere, most notably in New York City’s Pathways to Housing. Since 2005, the Las Vegas Valley project has helped at least 650 people. About 45 percent have stayed in housing at least 12 months, setting straight chaotic lives, said Myrna Pili, director of social services for HELP.

Along the way, dozens of social workers and others who work with the homeless have been trained to apply the approach, stepping out of the confines of most government and private programs.

“It’s been a transforming effort as far as social services for the homeless,” said Nancy McLane, director of Clark County Social Service. The county provides about $1.5 million annually to the program — but doesn’t dictate how the money is spent. “People who are the experts come up with the model,” she said.

McLane and Pili both pointed to another measure of the program’s success: fewer people dying on the valley’s streets. In 2005, when the program started, 75 homeless people died in the valley; by 2008, that number had dropped to 48.

When Jones said he was ready to get off the streets, Lera-Randle El had been saying hello to him most days for years. She would tell him, “You don’t have to live like this,” he recalled.

“I told her, ‘When I get ready, I’ll holler. Till then, let’s just be friends,’ ” he drawled, his voice still dripping with the sound of his hometown, Monroe, La. He found odd jobs while living on the streets, but that was “workin’ for the dope man,” he said.

Work became harder when he suffered a hernia. Lera-Randle El said she could take him to the doctor, help him apply for social services, get a roof over his head.

The doctor also diagnosed him with bad arthritis in the shoulders and knees. Lera-Randle El told him, “Your knees and shoulders aren’t getting any better. If you don’t stop (smoking crack and drinking) your heart’s also gonna give up,” Jones recalled.

Lera-Randle El got HELP’s drug counselor, Ed Vega, to talk to Jones. One day, she brought him some keys to an apartment. Unfortunately, the apartment wasn’t far enough away from old friends. Jones failed to pass several consecutive drug tests, Lera-Randle El said.

“I didn’t kick him out. That would just put him on someone else’s doorstep,” she said.

So she stuck with Jones, connecting him with Harris Springs Ranch, an addiction treatment program near Mount Charleston run by WestCare, another partner in the project.

Within a year, he was clean. He moved to his current apartment near Eastern and Washington avenues and hasn’t turned back. He lives on $892 monthly Social Security disability checks and is back in touch with his family.

Jones said it was Lera-Randle El’s approach that brought him to get off A Street four years ago.

“She would give you a way out, an option. It gives you somethin’ to think about,” he said. “And she would say it like your big sister: ‘I care about you. But, you got to care more about yourself.’ ”

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