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Hoping a snapshot of homelessness illustrates a path forward

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Michael Lyle, Nevada Current
January 30, 2024

The morning light is barely starting to pierce through the sky when a group volunteering to conduct the annual homeless census meet Cindy Williams, who is wearing a bright pink sweatshirt and holding a sign that reads “Hungry. Thank you. God Bless”

The group, which includes U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford and Clark County Commissioner Richard “Tick” Segerblom, walked by people tucked away inside tents and sleeping bags along the sidewalks of Katie Avenue near Maryland Parkway. 

Williams, who said she has experienced homelessness off and on for 13 years, is the first one who is awake and willing to speak.

Clark County Social Services Assistant Manager Brenda Barnes squats down to ask Williams  how long she’s experienced homelessness, assess her needs, and answer her questions about getting her Social Security card. 

“Would you be willing to go to a non-congregate shelter?” asked Barnes, referring to the type of shelter that has more privacy than dorm-style emergency shelters.

Williams tells her another nonprofit had previously picked her up to take her to shelter. 

“They wanted to put me out in a shelter on Boulder Highway with nothing around me,” she said. “You can’t walk to the store or anything.” 

Barnes told Williams she would send a caseworker from another nonprofit out to work with her. After collecting information, the group continued walking. 

 Clark County Social Services Assistance Manager Brenda Barnes and U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford speak with a woman experiencing homelessness. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

While Barnes said it is possible to send out social service providers to assist the people they talk with during the annual Point in Time count, the focus of the morning is on estimating – and better understanding – how many people could be experiencing homelessness on any given night. 

Southern, Northern, and Rural Nevada Continuums of Care, the local network of agencies and service providers that provide assistance and housing resources to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, all conducted homeless counts Jan. 25.

Results won’t come until later in the year. 

Segerblom wouldn’t speculate on what numbers might show this year.

“Visibility right now, and maybe it’s because of the weather, but it seems like it has very much increased,” Segerblom said. “I’m getting so many complaints about visible camps right now.”

Last year’s count showed rates of homelessness throughout the state increased from the previous year.

Southern Nevada alone had a 16% increase in homelessness from its previous year –  in fact the largest counted in a decade.

There were 6,566 people counted in January, 2023. An estimated 16,251 were expected to experience homelessness in Clark County at some point in the year.

Washoe County, which reported 1,690 during its 2023 canvas, had a slight increase from the previous year at 1,609. The number was just slightly lower than the 1,708 counted in 2021. 

There were 1,231 counted in Washoe in 2020. 

Counting – or not – in rural Nevada

The Rural Nevada Continuum of Care report from 2023 found that 96 people were in shelter and 314 unsheltered scattered across the state’s 15 rural counties. 

There are different challenges to counting homelessness in rural, more lightly populated parts of the state, said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, the chief strategist of Winged Wolf Innovations, which coordinates the Rural Nevada Continuum of Care. 

“There is so much area in our rural Nevada that is uninhabited,” she said. “Much of it isn’t even reachable even by vehicle. So folks canvasing can only get so far. They go as far as they can and after that they assume there is nobody after that point. If you can’t get there you have to assume nobody can get there.”

According to last year’s Point-in-Time results, there were 132 people unsheltered in Nye County, the largest number of unsheltered within the rural counties. Seven people were counted in the shelter. 

Carson City has the second largest number with 62 people counted in shelter and 68 unsheltered.  

There were eight counties (Esmeralda, Eureka, Lander, Lincoln, Mineral, Pershing, Storey and White Pine) that recorded “not applicable” in the number of sheltered – meaning there are no official shelters — while Lyon reported zero. 

Fuller-Hallauer said they are making changes to the count this year in order to better indicate whether no people were observed during the count, or if there wasn’t a count. 

“We are asking that if they did a canvassing and saw nobody to identify that as a zero rather than an ‘N/A’ so we can truly identify those folks that did something and found zero versus N/A meaning they didn’t do anything,” she said.

In  urban areas, emergency congregate shelters can tally their numbers of folks sleeping. Fuller-Hallauer said most rural counties don’t have those types of shelters. 

“Most of the shelters are in hotel/motel(s) or in churches that might open up warming stations that open up for incremental weather in the winter.”

In prior years, some rural agencies have conducted motel counts. A motel count found 204 people in rural counties during the 2023 reporting.

This year, Fuller-Hallauer said they are only counting the number of people staying in motels if their rooms are being paid for by a social service agency. 

Because there is a smaller number of unhoused folks in rural areas, it can be more feasible to conduct interviews to find out the reason behind someone’s homelessness. 

Not every county participates in in-depth interviews. 

Nye County didn’t conduct interviews or take a motel count.. 

However, Carson City did.

Officials in Carson City interviewed 16 individuals, and found 12 cited their inability to pay rent as a barrier to permanent housing. Additionally, seven said they didn’t have the money for the first and last month’s rent deposit, and six said they had bad credit. 

The report notes that some of those surveyed indicated more than one barrier. 

Only two identified alcohol or drug misuse as a barrier to their housing. 

Fuller-Hallauer said the goal is to interview at least 80% of the people counted in sheltered and unsheltered settings. 

“We also anticipate full surveys for everyone in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing,” she said. 

Though there are people living in tents or makeshift shelters, Fuller-Hallauer said there are “quite a few people living in” recreational vehicles. Usually, those vehicles are in need of repairs, lack electricity and sewage drains, or are prohibited from parking inside manufactured home parks because they are older.

In previous years, the number of people living in recreational vehicles was lumped in with cars and trucks. 

“We separated it out into a separate category of its own so we can identify who is in cars and trucks versus people living in RVs so we really know that difference,” she said. “The intervention we would provide for folks living in an RV might be different given the circumstances of that RV.”

‘Homelessness keeps spiking’

Hundreds of volunteers gathered inside the Cambridge Recreation Center ahead of the homeless census. Once they break off into groups, they can drive or walk the area canvassing the streets of Southern Nevada. 

 Volunteers conducting the homeless Point-in-Time count can survey people to learn about various needs. (Photo: Michael Lyle/Nevada Current)

Barnes said in future years, they may conduct the annual survey over a length of time instead of one day to get a better picture of homelessness. 

Not only did last year’s data from Southern Nevada show an increase, it indicated that 3,912 people, about 60% of the unhoused population, were unsheltered. That included the 132 people sleeping at the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

Clark County has since opened a new, 70-bed Navigation Center and has poured more resources into converting hotels into non-congregate shelters

Barnes hopes those moves are reflected in the homeless numbers. 

“I’m hoping with our new non-congregate shelters and the navigation center, we might see a shift in numbers with higher in sheltered and a decrease in unsheltered,” Barnes said. “Honestly, it could be balanced out because homelessness keeps spiking. It’s our economy. It’s the evictions. We can’t keep up with the cost of living and fair market rent. Everything is battling against us. I’m hoping to see that shift of unsheltered to shelter. We will find out today.”

The most alarming spike in last year’s count came from families with children, which jumped from 516 counted in 2022 to 794 families in the 2023 count – a 54% increase.

Like most of the findings of the count, the numbers are most likely an underestimate.

“As a parent, we tend to be pretty resourceful if we can be,” Barnes said. “With that, sometimes we don’t fall into the right categories to be captured. We might have multiple households sharing one space together just to avoid their children being on the streets.” 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.