The Homeless Population of Las Vegas: Drugs and Despair
For generations, Las Vegas has been a city that has embodied the heights and excesses of the American dream. For thousands of people, however, that dream didn’t pan out. Lured by promises and hopes of good luck and quick fortunes, they found only drugs and dejection. In the shadows of some of the most iconic monuments of wealth, the homeless population of Las Vegas lives one day at a time, surrounded by decadence and squalor.
Sleeping in the Sewers
The Plaid Zebra explains how Las Vegas’s unique geographical position is an unlikely contributor to its homeless problem. The city of Las Vegas is located in the Las Vegas Valley in the Mojave Desert, with the Spring Mountains surrounding the area. During the monsoon season of January and February, the heavy rainfall causes flash flooding that city planners countered by constructing an extensive labyrinth of storm sewers beneath the very streets that constitute some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
The sewers still serve their intended purpose, but they have also become home to hundreds of people who seem to be at the polar opposite end of the Vegas spectrum. They are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol (or, ironically, gambling), and have nowhere to go, with no families to call their own (or whose families do not know of their dispossessed status). They are people in their 20s and people who should be happily retired; people who are alone and people who are in love. The Plaid Zebra writes that some nuclear families live in the sewers of Las Vegas.
Some of them are content (albeit reluctantly) to live out their days underground. Others wait until sunset to go to the surface and panhandle on street corners. They rifle through dumpsters, trashcans, and back alleys, looking for discarded coins, tokens, cards, and winnings left by careless and awestruck tourists. NPR reports that some homeless people even have good suits that they keep in the tunnels, all the better to walk into a casino and pretend like they are guests, as they surreptitiously search for money (a process known as silver mining or credit hustling).
It’s not a comfortable life. Homeless people are at risk for being mugged or even murdered, and a transient existence is not conducive to health and hygiene. For the people living in Las Vegas’s sewers, there is the added danger of the sewers serving their intended purpose. The excess rainwater being channeled through the tunnels can lead to destruction of what few possessions they have at best. At worst, it can literally drown them, in water that rises by a foot every minute.
The Daily Mail writes that one person drowns every year in the tunnels, but since the desert climate renders rain an infrequent weather condition in the area, hundreds of homeless people choose to take the risk.
Overcrowded Cots and Problem Gambling
Vice magazine explains that the homeless population underneath Las Vegas receives little help from the city, so they have no choice but to make the sewers their shelter. Law enforcement only pays attention when there is a crime problem, and the healthcare industry has not been helping. In 2013, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office launched an investigation into whether Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital, Nevada’s primary public mental health facility, had been intentionally dumping its patients over state borders. The Sacramento Bee discovered that Rawson-Neal had transported around 1,500 psychiatric patients to other cities. The patients were unaccompanied, given a small supply of medication and bottles of nutritional supplements.
One man, a paraplegic, was found dragging himself along a gutter, still in his hospital robe and still connected to a catheter bag. As Vice says, most homeless people are normal Americans who have simply lost their way. Unfortunately, the system is rarely of any help to them.
It’s enough to make a writer for Las Vegas Weekly lament that the only plan her city has for the mentally ill is nothing more than a bus to San Francisco. For minor drug offenders, the plan involves “overcrowded cots in Clark County Detention Center.” For the myriad and complex causes of homelessness – everything from mental health disorders to substance abuse, from unemployment to abuse, from minority status to problem gambling – the long-term options for treatment are few and far between.
And Nevada, of all places, is a hotbed for excessive gambling. The Las Vegas Review-Journal quotes the executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling as saying that while a little more than 2 percent of the general population is affected by compulsive gambling, the figure is three times higher in the state of Nevada.
The Worst of the Worst in a Destination City
Vice talked to some of the people living in Vegas’s sewers. One of them left his family because Las Vegas was a “destination city.” Another, named Mike, came to Las Vegas after he lost his job and got divorced. He arrived in Sin City because of the potential of getting back on his feet, but found a very different reality.
Mike lived and slept in his broken-down car, until he was kicked off the property where it was parked. His attempts at sports betting failed, because the casinos always won. For the next six years, Mike lived on the streets of Las Vegas but then moved into the sewers. There, he developed an addiction to methamphetamines. When he found a discarded $1,600 winning sports ticket, he cashed it and used the money to buy more drugs. Mike tells Vice that he never thought of using the money to find a place to live.
Mike’s life was saved by HELP of Southern Nevada, a social services organization, which deals with, in their words, “the worst of the worst.” Through HELP, homeless people in the tunnels get single-occupancy housing and receive counseling to help them with their health and drug problems.
After HELP, Mike worked in a gun store, and became such a model employee that Vice says it would be hard to believe that he was a meth addict living in the sewers.
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Mike’s story is notable for its happy ending, but for hundreds of people who aren’t as lucky, getting clean and getting out of Las Vegas’s tunnels remains an elusive dream. The Las Vegas Review-Journal quotes a report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that found that between 2013 and 2014, 20 states experienced an increase in the number of people who would qualify as being homeless. Nevada’s increase of 1,733 such people puts it at the top of that list.>
What does “qualifying as being homeless” entail? The American Psychological Association explains that simply not having a place to live is only one of the definitions of homelessness. On a broader scope, a lack of safety and stability in living situations would also fit the criteria; therefore, even a person living in a sheltered location (such as an overcrowded room or motel) could be thought of as homeless, if the living arrangement was not conducive to personal and physical wellbeing, and if the person did not have the financial resources to have any say over where they live.
The definition also expands beyond a single demographic. The Review-Journal writes that overall homelesscan refer to individuals, families, children and youth, veterans, and people who are chronically homeless.
What constitutes homeless covers a large number of conditions, which may explain why Nevada’s increase in the number of people who could be identified as homeless was the highest in the country. Officials in Southern Nevada (where Las Vegas is located) were duly unsurprised by the rise. The 2014 Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey indicated that the largest population increase came from the transient community. The continuum of care coordinator for the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition echoed the points made by the homeless people Vice talked to: Many people come to the region looking for job opportunities or expect that the prospect of quick money will turn their fortunes around.
The Long Shadow
This has led to the state of Nevada having a homeless population of 10,556, as of the time of the report. Nevada does not have the resources to deal with people from all around the country coming to the Las Vegas area to try their luck in a system that is weighted against them. A spokeswoman for the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada said that the number of men at her shelter during the summer months was 314, and the average number of men at the year-round emergency night shelter was 488. The facility receives funding for only 130. In order to cover the additional costs, the organization had to fundraise. Without more resources, homeless people – specifically mentioning those with mental illnesses – will have no choice but to go on the streets.
Even with what little funding it receives, the shelter is trying its best. In 2013, its food pantry served between 3,300 to 3,500 families every month. The following year, that number went up to 4,500 families.
Concurrently, the Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey 2014 reported a 28 percent increase in its homeless population, when compared to figures from the previous year, resulting in a total count of 9,417 (out of 10,556 in the entire state). In Clark County (the most populous state in Nevada, and of which Las Vegas is the county seat), the director of the local Department of Social Service, who is also a member of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s Committee on Homelessness, attributed the rising transient population to the sluggish economic recovery, which was particularly painful on people who were financially vulnerable.As recently as February 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Great Recession “still casts a long shadow.”One man who lost his construction job now hawks timeshares to tourists on the Las Vegas Strip just to feed his four children. There’s tons of money to be made, he tells the Times, unknowingly echoing the words of thousands of people who were lured by the tales and temptations of Sin City.
In the sewers under the Strip, ABC’s Nightline talked to a man named Phil who became unemployed during the Recession. When his unemployment checks stopped coming, he ended up in the sewers.
The Nightline team found Phil reading an issue of Sports Illustrated, catching up on scores so he could place his bets in the casinos above him. Phil said that his goal is to win big and get out of the tunnels, but he acknowledges that everyone who comes to Las Vegas has the same idea he does.
Until he does, Phil is happy leaving the sewers at night to look for credits that tourists leave behind. “I don’t mind taking money from those who live a life of decadence,” he says.
Trying to Win a Million Dollars
In Clark County, local officials estimate that 1.8 percent of the population (34,397 residents) are homeless. Some sleep in shelters; others sleep on the streets. A 2015 survey found that most of them are white and middle-aged men, between the ages of 51 and 60. Thirteen percent of those who answered the survey are veterans, and 71 percent became homeless while living in the area. Of that 71 percent, half of them attributed the loss of their jobs to their homeless status, but many others also have medical conditions and mental health illnesses that forced them out of their jobs and homes.
The Las Vegas Sun interviewed eight homeless people on the world-famous Strip. One of them, a 60-year-old woman, who only identified herself as “Stephanie” because she didn’t want her six adult children to know that she’s homeless, bemoaned that the city of Las Vegas, with all its opulence and endless wealth, could not do more to help its homeless.
A 2013 report from the University of Las Vegas found that the 23 casinos that made more than $72 million each in that fiscal year came away with a total of $5 billion from customers. The figures average
out to $630,000 per day, per casino. And yet, Stephanie tells the Las Vegas Sun, she gets dirty looks from other women who walk past her. One even suggested she prostitute herself to get off the streets. They don’t understand, Stephanie says, that homelessness can happen to anyone.
Another woman had to go on depression medication after a false drug charge resulted in her losing her apartment and custody rights of her young child. A man was lured to Vegas from Phoenix with the promise of a job, which came on the heels of the death of his wife and the loss of his home. Another confessed to a heroin addiction, but said he was getting methadone treatment. A 61-year-old man moved from Texas to Las Vegas, “trying to win a million dollars.” The economy, he says, is why he’s homeless (of the 922 people responding to the Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey, 53.5 percent said that the loss of their job was the primary reason for their homelessness). Homeless shelters will not take him in because of his criminal record, so he sleeps wherever he can until the police tell him to move.
The Cost of Homelessnes
Every year, the state of Nevada spends over $100,000 removing homeless people from Las Vegas’s sewers, even as the Department of Transportation reports increasing numbers of people living in the tunnels. One of the public health issues that most concerns the DOT is the biological factor. Crews clean out hundreds of hypodermic needles a month – needles that may contain not only traces of the drugs that addicted users injected into their bodies, but also HIV and hepatitis C. To that point, the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal published the results of a study that found that homeless populations had higher rates of tuberculosis, HIV, and hepatitis C than the general population.
In addition to drug- and disease-contaminated needles, the Nevada Department of Transportation further warns that homeless people living in the Las Vegas sewer system are also exposed to human waste. In 2015, the Department of Transportation spent $117,000 to move homeless people, their possessions, and trash out of the city’s infrastructure. In 2016, that amount is expected to rise to $360,000.
Ending Veteran Homelessness
However, there are some positives coming out of Las Vegas’s otherwise bleak homeless situation. The Review-Journal notes that Las Vegas Valley successfully completed a White House initiative known as the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro met local leaders in December 2015 to congratulate them for achieving “functional zero” status in Southern Nevada (which means that the Las Vegas Valley has enough resources and programs to house every homeless veteran).
Implementation is easy; all a veteran would have to do is provide identification and request services, and officials would be able to initiate housing procedures. The success has led to more than 1,400 veterans in the Valley finding housing in the 2015 calendar year.
Various agencies have created a list of all veterans who have declared themselves as homeless, so as to better coordinate rehabilitation and rehoming work. By late 2015, the list had 350 veterans, and 310 were in the process of being housed. When a veteran identifies as homeless, it takes roughly 90 days until a permanent housing solution is found. Officials and advocates are investigating how that waiting period can be reduced.
However, not all veterans have accepted the offers of help. A spokesman for the city of Las Vegas explained that some people are simply “service-resistant.” A 2012 report by NPR on “Why Some Homeless Choose the Streets Over Shelters” found that many homeless people have mental health conditions (like schizophrenia) that make them distrustful and suspicious of large groups of people (many of whom have other mental health issues). Rumors of drugs and drug dealers, thieves, and infestations of bedbugs and body lice contribute to some veterans and other homeless people choosing to take their chances on the streets.
That conflict speaks to how complex the issue of homelessness is. While the development and funding of programs and services will save and enrich many lives, there will always be some people who cannot be reached and who refuse to be reached. In an area like Las Vegas, this problem is exacerbated. The deputy director of wellness and the Nevada Department of Veteran Services tells the Review-Journal that one of the challenges confronting her organization, as well as other local services, is that the state of Nevada sees a lot of migration.
Youth on the Streets
Of course, veterans are not the only at-risk population for homelessness. KTNV reports that over 2,200 youth in the Vegas area are homeless. Nevada is fourth nationwide for the amount of homeless youth within its borders, and leads the rest of the country for the number of homeless youth who have to survive unsheltered and on the streets. In a city like Las Vegas, the issue is often unseen and unappreciated.
KNTV quotes the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth in explaining that what distinguishes homeless youth from a population like veterans is that young people become transient with very little work or life experiences behind them. They are also not very well educated, as their homeless status precludes regular school attendance or a healthy and supportive learning environment when they are not in the classroom. That understanding is key in the application of how the US Department of Education defines homelessness among school-aged people: not having a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
This results in homeless youth being stereotyped as uneducated criminals, but the truth is that they are often the most exploited. They are recruited by gangs, which further exposes them to substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and labor trafficking. The concern of sex crimes may be exceptionally relevant for LGBT homeless youth, many of whom are disowned by their families for their sexuality. They come to Las Vegas for sanctuary, often penniless and with no resources or connections to get settled in a new city. Vegas, writes The Advocate, is a popular choice because of its proximity to the culturally and religiously conservative Utah. Instead, they find themselves exploited and abused, picked up by pimps when they are as young as 13 years old. Many gay and lesbian homeless youth commit suicide before their 21st birthday. As with homeless populations around the country, the Las Vegas area has seen a significant increase in the number of LGBT teens who do not have a place to live.
Helping Today’s Youth and Tomorrow’s Homeless
However, hope is not lost. Thanks to a grant of $350,000 from HomeAid Southern Nevada and Nevada Women’s Philanthropy, the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth was able to expand its drop-in center by 6,200 square feet. Youth homelessness is a severe public health problem for the Las Vegas community, said the partnership’s executive director. In the 2014 school year, more than 8,000 homeless students were reported by the Clark County School District. The figure is a 21 percent increase from the 2013 school year. The 2014 Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey reported 1,601 unaccompanied youth (out on the streets with no adult guardian) between 18 and 24 years of age.
That’s why the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth works on providing food, clothes, and temporary housing to make sure that today’s youths don’t become “tomorrow’s homeless adults.”
The Only Place More Improbable
Perhaps the Phoenix New Times puts it best: “The only place more improbable” than the Las Vegas strip “is what lies beneath it.” Under the casinos that make over a half-million dollars every day, under the hotels that host performances by some of the biggest names in entertainment, and under the attractions that bring in tens of millions of tourists every year (so much so that an economics report suggests that Vegas may be the most tourism-dependent city in the United States), an entire population of people struggling with mental health, substance abuse, or gambling problems lives in the shadows.
As with any major city, the problem of homelessness (with all its causes and solutions) is complex and vast. However, most major cities don’t see 41 million visitors in a year, which itself is an increase over past years. Las Vegas’s reputation for pleasure and entertainment has resulted in a local economic boom of over $45 billion, which looks incredibly attractive and lucrative for disenfranchised people who have nowhere else to go. But as the people living in Sin City’s sewers have discovered, the reality that awaits them is an unkind one; and the thousands of others sleeping on park benches and storefront doorways look up and see the lights of Las Vegas from so close, yet so very far away.
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