Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Down and Out in Las Vegas

If you're mentally ill, addicted, homeless, and very lucky, you might find a home in Las Vegas.

Very high unemployment and the highest foreclosure rate in the nation has taken it's toll on this resort vacation destination spot in the Nevada desert. And the tourists that come here are not very friendly to the homeless.

Can you imagine living in a dark and dingy tunnel underneath Sheldon Adelson's beautiful and elegant Las Vegas Sands Hotel and Casino on Las Vegas Boulevard?

ABC News - "Underneath Sin City's most famous casinos is a secret world: a labyrinth of tunnels that run for miles under the Las Vegas Valley. Built to protect the desert city from flash floods, the tunnels have become home to hundreds of Las Vegas' homeless."

Journalist Matt O'Brien wrote a book, Beneath the Neon, about this elaborate subterranean world of beds with headboards, makeshift pantries, and even art on the walls (pictured below. More here). Now O'Brien's interest has turned to advocacy — he's connected folks in the tunnels with a local non-profit group called HELP of Southern Nevada, which has since started an outreach program

But if you already have a mental or physical disability (including drug addiction), you might qualify for $637 a month in Social Security disability payments.

And if you've also been living on the streets (or under them) for a very long time (being chronically homeless), and if you get very lucky, you might also qualify for a low-cost apartment in North Las Vegas.

Horizon Crest on 13 West Owens Avenue (pictured below) has 66 low-rent apartments for the poor and 12 apartments for the chronically homeless, those who have been on the street the longest. It's a nice complex, but just a few blocks away are some very nasty neighborhoods with a lot of gang activity in the surrounding area. (I didn't bother to research the nearest food store, in case one doesn't own a car.)

The federal government defines the chronically homeless as people with a physical or mental disability who have not had permanent housing for at least a year — or four times in three years. The Las Vegas Valley’s homeless population is estimated at 12,000, but Horizon Crest only consists of 78 units (think of a lottery).

Nevada HAND, a housing developer, built the apartments for $11.5 million, using federal low-income housing tax credits as well as Las Vegas and state money.

The formerly homeless tenants have a case manager who is on-site Monday through Friday. The idea is to get people off the streets and into housing without first forcing them to jump through such hoops as getting a job, completing a de-tox program or going to church — as is common in many other programs. The hope is that the anchor of an apartment, plus on-site or nearby help for addictions, mental illness and other problems, will be enough to keep people from going back to the streets.

The formerly homeless tenants put 30 percent of their incomes toward the rent with the remainder covered by county or state money. The tenants receive a rule book of sorts on entering the program, including requirements of weekly meetings and plans to develop daily routines leading to long-term housing. (I have no idea how one might qualify if they have no source of income.)

47-year-old Michael Sumling had been on the streets or in jail most of the time since leaving his home in Charleston, Mississippi when he was 16. By his count, he has been in 40 emergency rooms and clinics in dozens of states, whenever he was overrun by depression and heard voices in his head. He gets $637 a month in Social Security Disability* checks for his mental illness.

* I've been waiting for over a year on my own Social Security Disability claim, and I'm currently waiting for a hearing date before a judge after two rejections already. I've been living with a friend and using food stamps all that time.

At first, after being on the streets in Las Vegas for several months, Michael Sumling wound up at a short-term program called New Genesis, where a caseworker from HELP of Southern Nevada told him about the Horizon Crest apartments. The main requirement was the ability to prove that he had been on the streets for a long time.

Because of his mental condition, Michael Sumling has a tote bag filled with Prozac and other pills*. Recently he made the mistake of assuming he was “better” and stopped taking those pills. Soon after, "the voices" came back.

* I assume that like myself, Sumling is using state Medicaid through the Clark County Social Services to receive his medical care. If it wasn't for my new friend, I too might have ended up homeless. But because I wasn't "chronically homeless", I would never have qualified for one of those lost-cost apartments, because living on the street was never an option for me.

A case manager at Horizon Crest says tenants like Sumling could be evicted if they don't comply with their "program", which includes having to attend sessions to help them develop skills, such as looking for a job (in a jobless city). Although there may not be many hoops to jump through for getting into the program, there are requirements for staying.

A study of this program showed that nearly 9 of 10 chronically homeless people with mental illness stayed in housing for 5 consecutive years with round-the-clock help.

(Pictured below) Michael Sumling chats with a friend in his Horizon Crest apartment. Would you be willing to live like he did before being able to qualify for one of these low-rent apartments?

Crystal Williams is case manager for HELP of Southern Nevada. The 59-year-old has worked in human services for 35 years, the last three as a case manager of chronically homeless people. Most of the 25 people on her caseload are dealing with long-standing addictions and mental health problems. She is used to meeting people at rock bottom.

Crystal will travel to every corner of the Las Vegas Valley to visit the homes of her clients, each at a different level of independence. Caseworkers like Crystal keeps extra keys to their client's apartments in case they need to check on the welfare of clients.

She took two of them grocery shopping and stopped at the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for a third.

One of Crystal Williams' clients is 33-year-old Jason McKenzie, who was homeless for about a year before joining HELP's program nine months ago. He had trouble staying sober, even with outpatient treatment. Now he's got a month's worth of sobriety under his belt.

Crystal dropped in on another client, David Matthews, 51, who lives in a tidy apartment in south Las Vegas. Matthews is a former airport screener who got hooked on opiates after injuring his back years ago. He spent three years living in a Henderson homeless encampment before outreach workers from HELP of Southern Nevada came along. He's been clean eight months.

Later Crystal dropped in on a female client who asked not to be identified. The 48-year-old former cocktail waitress is trim, her blond-gray hair thick and stylish. She has been a HELP client nearly two years.

Her next stop was Fred Beutler, 40, who is a former iron worker who has been in HELP's program just three weeks. He spent two of them in the hospital because of health problems caused by chronic alcoholism. His liver is now so damaged that drinking a single beer sends him to the hospital.

HELP caseworkers encourage clients to wait until they have achieved a long stretch of sobriety before looking for a job. "It's a bad idea to give newly sober people access to a lot of cash," Crystal says.

Crystal spent the rest of the day visiting other clients around town, most of whom are at home when they are not at doctors' appointments or attending counseling, substance abuse treatment and vocational rehabilitation.

Some clients eventually succeed, become independent and leave the program. Sometimes it takes years. Others fail, though Crystal doesn't see it that way. "On average I feel we have made a difference in one way or another," she says.

It's not until later, when Crystal arrives back at her small HELP office, on Flamingo Road just west of Maryland Parkway, that she takes a moment to breathe. It's about 4 p.m. Her day started at 7:30 a.m. She'll spend the next hour or so doing paperwork, then head home. Tomorrow is another day for her.

Programs such as HELP of Southern Nevada, Medicaid, food stamps, and Social Security are the very programs the Republicans want to cut — just to offset the cost for more tax breaks for the rich. That's why I hate Republicans.

My Related Posts:

* Excerpted and edited from the Las Vegas Review Journal - HELP of Southern Nevada gives hope to addicts, homeless and the Las Vegas Sun - First things first: For homeless, a home

1 comment:

  1. Me and my fiance are homeless and trying to travel on foot mostly to Vegas to see family. We are currently stuck in St Louis Illinois on the border Missouri.