Understanding the Past
What will it take to end homelessness in Southern Nevada? Clark County was one of the hardest hit in the recession of 2008. On any given day, according to the 2015 Southern Nevada Homeless Census & Survey, 7,509 people in Southern Nevada are homeless. Fifty-three and a half percent reported becoming homeless after losing their job. Over half (53.8 percent) said it was their first time being homeless.
In order to understand the past regional efforts to end homelessness, I recently asked former Las Vegas mayors Jan Jones Blackhurst and Oscar Goodman and former Clark County Manager Thom Reilly for a history of what they had done during their terms of service. They were also invited to share their thoughts on the current state of homelessness in the valley.
Jones Blackhurst served as mayor from January 1991 to January 1999. On her first day as mayor, Jones Blackhurst had a large group of homeless come together and march on city hall. The homeless that day were “hopeless and frustrated people,” she said. “It caused me to make homelessness and trying to fix it in our valley a priority.”
During her term as mayor, Jones Blackhurst created a crisis intervention center within the city limits. The center provided homeless with immediate access to services under one roof. It also provided career counseling and a telephone bank to contact potential employers.
Housing then, as now, was an issue in ending homelessness. Jones Blackhurst worked with developers to create new housing units. “You have to sustain these programs. They are difficult and they are hard. You have to understand that all homeless aren’t created equal.” She explained that you have to have different programs based on deferent needs.
Oscar Goodman served as mayor from June 1999 to July 2011. He explained, “I had the beginning of the ultimate solution. I said, musing aloud at a council meeting, ‘There is the perfect facility to have these folks treated 30 miles down the road in Jean, Nevada. If they take off the bars and clean it up it becomes a facility that has office space, a commissary, space for a psychologist, sociologists, medical professionals and living quarters.” The press got ahold of Oscar’s idea and ran stories that read, “Mayor Wants to Send Homeless to Prison.”
Goodman added that the problem with the mentally ill, unmedicated homeless is that current laws do not force anyone to have treatment unless they are a threat to themselves or others. If deemed a threat they can be placed on a Legal 2000 (a 72-hour hold). “We need to get a law that says it’s all right for people who are trained to take these people into custodia legis, the custody of the law, but gently. These people aren’t criminals. Place them into a facility where they get the treatment they deserve.”
Goodman feels that if we don’t reform mental health care this portion of the homeless population will never get the help and treatment they need.
Reilly, Clark County manager from 2001 to 2006, explained that the effort to create a regional perspective to address homelessness began during his tenure. “There has been a lot of effort for the county and the cities to pull together and start addressing homelessness from a regional perspective,” said Reilly. “We formed a committee to work on this.
“The problem I think Clark County faces is that the business community and others have not fully been a part of that effort (to end homelessness),” Reilly added.
Whether it is more funding for housing, mental health reform or private sector partnership, all three former leaders agreed that homelessness in Southern Nevada today is a problem that needs to be addressed. Jones Blackhurst posed the question, “How can a privileged society, not just in Las Vegas, not find a way to make a significant impact to the people and try to get them off the streets? The collective community needs to care.”
Formerly homeless, Merideth Spriggs is the founder and chief kindness officer of Caridad, a homeless-service provider based in downtown Las Vegas. She can be reached at email@example.com.