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Getting by on the streets of Las Vegas
He’s a Teamster, who used to ski professionally. He gets a kick out of the Kahuna show in the morning on KKLZ. The Department of Motor Vehicles gets his blood boiling. He enjoys McDonald’s coffee late at night. He likes to see the free movies at the library on Tuesdays. He’s a voracious reader, currently reading about pro-golfer John Daly.
Occasionally, Robert will hit a few balls himself. “I love to hit a bucket of balls,” he said.
But he usually does that past midnight, when he doesn’t have to pay. He can’t afford a golf club membership or a round.
See, Robert doesn’t even have a place to turn in at night, a place to shower. He works sporadically. His last job was helping out on the construction of Hooters Casino Hotel.
Robert, who didn’t want his last name used for this story, wanders the streets as one of the Las Vegas area’s estimated 12,000 homeless. The word “homeless” is a catchall for people who are supposed to be miscreants, alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, and lazy and stupid beggars.
For sure, many homeless have addictions.
They likely also have underlying emotional and mental disorders, medical issues or physical handicaps. That makes it difficult for them to hold a regular job, which keeps them down. Eventually, they stop caring what people think and they drop out of society.
The question is: Even if they are to blame for their situations, should they be denied basic needs such as food and shelter and perhaps most important, dignity?
Las Vegas seems to have answered “Yes.” The city has been antagonistic toward its growing homeless population and recently made news around the world for making it illegal to give food to homeless in city parks. Mayor Oscar Goodman said homeless are congregating in parks, scaring away neighbors. City officials contend that the new law helps homeless people by keeping them at local shelters.
One thing is clear, local charities aren’t meeting the need and the city seems to be breeding a culture of homelessness. Many of the homeless are children and families with children. Many more are on the verge of homelessness—the so-called “working poor.”
“It’s tough,” Robert said. “Everybody likes to think they know what a homeless person is like,” he said. “We’re just like the United States of America. We’ve got different problems,” he said.
“We’re not idiots, we’re not all stupid.”
When he’s rustling around in the trash across from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Robert doesn’t look bright. He looks menacing. His jeans and t-shirt are stained and filthy. His hair is unkempt and his face has deep wrinkles burned by the sun.
Still, he doesn’t look as old as his 54 years. Maybe it’s all the walking he does.
As a homeless person, Robert’s always on the go and in the Las Vegas heat, he’s usually seeking shelter. The bus is good for cooling off, he said. “The library would be a No. 1 spot.” But he also likes the library because it’s one of the few places where people treat him kindly.
“They are the single nicest people for the homeless on Earth today,” he said. Robert tends to define places by the level of kindness. He points to the 24-hour Laundromat next to the Coffee Bean on Maryland Parkway – “They’re very, very nice.”
Robert avoids shelters such as the Salvation Army because they haven’t proven helpful for him. Where to sleep isn’t a matter. “I don’t sleep 8 hours. When you’re on the street, eight minutes, yes. Eight hours, no.”
A bit on shelters. The Salvation Army makes a distinction between beds and cots. The 114 cots are free – but usually full. Beds cost $4 to $6, depending on the dorm. The 200 or so beds are nearly full every night, according to Thomas Bell, shelter supervisor.
“First nighters” who want a free cot must get in line at 6:15 p.m. to sign up. If he scores a cot, he can keep it for 30 consecutive days. But he must check in everyday by 8 p.m. and be out at 5:30 a.m.
The shelter serves one free meal at 2:45 p.m. Additional meals cost $2.50. Catholic Charities has similar policies. If the charge for beds and meals weren’t enough to keep the homeless on the streets, then the drug and alcohol policy surely is. The Salvation Army’s mantra: “We have a zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs.”
Bell said the Salvation Army has to charge for its beds and meals to stay in business. Donations aren’t enough, he said.
Father Joe Carroll, who used to run Las Vegas’ M.A.S.H. Village, said charging homeless for food and shelter isn’t helpful. But Las Vegas shelters don’t have a choice, he said. The agencies need more support, financially and otherwise, from the city and the county, he said. “Agencies have become the enemy.”
Carroll knows a thing or two about Las Vegas’ homeless problem. His rehabilitation shelter served about 500 people a night for eight years before Carroll bumped heads with Goodman, the then-incoming mayor. “The mayor believes they’ll leave town.” The prior mayor, Jan Laverty Jones, had another vision, Carroll said. “She thought we should address the need.”
Once Goodman took office, the city changed its mind on a land deal that would’ve allowed M.A.S.H. to expand, Carroll said. M.A.S.H. closed in 2002 and Carroll left Las Vegas and took many of his staff with him. Carroll’s Father Joe’s Villages instead built a shelter in Indio, Calif.
Carroll is optimistic about what a shelter combined with rehabilitation can do. “I believe I can get you off alcohol in 30 days or less.” Homeless need immediate help and then the education and skills to build a new life, he said. “That’s why M.A.S.H. was a two-year program,” he said.
Carroll suggests those who take a hard line on homelessness get to know a homeless person. “Meet them,” he said. “When people don’t understand something, they fear it,” he said. “They’re regular people.”
Las Vegas will lose its battle with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which is fighting the new ordinance, Carroll said. “It’s unconstitutional,” he said. “Prejudiced against the poor.”
Everything Robert owns is inside a backpack. He’s got a small $15 radio he bought downtown, another pair of jeans, two pair of jockey shorts, a McDonald’s card for coffee, ChapStick and a cell phone that isn’t working at the moment. “If you have a cell phone and a bus pass—you have those two things you can do anything you want in this town.”
His bag has been stolen several times along with his identification. Trying to get a new identification at the Department of Motor Vehicles has merely raised his blood pressure.
Robert said he doesn’t do drugs but he drinks sometimes. He once gambled but said he doesn’t anymore.
He tries to stay clean so he can get hourly-wage jobs through Manpower, which tests for drugs and alcohol. “I can’t panhandle,” he said. “That takes balls.”
“I do not draw unemployment. I do not draw anything.”
How does Robert eat? He tugs on his belly roll and asks: “How do I stay thin?” He said there are certain chefs and cooks around town who will share the night’s leftovers rather than throw it out. They will pour him a cup of coffee and stuff a to-go container. In return, Robert said he mops the kitchen floor.
He recently spent five days in jail, though he was only sentenced for four. “They’re so backed up,” he said. Jail’s upside: Shower. “The most I shower is when I go to jail.” He’s been in jail about 20 times, never for a violent offense or for stealing. His most recent offense was not showing up on a charge of “impairing the flow of pedestrian traffic.” He said he was sitting on a bench with his legs out.
“We’ve got a lot of crazy cops and a lot of good ones, and a lot of lazy ones that spend their time with people like me,” he said.
Gail Sacco, who has been giving food, water and clothing to the city’s homeless for about 14 months, said homeless people are arrested repeatedly for non-violent offenses such as open containers and sitting on park benches. Once they’re arrested, that makes it more difficult for them to get a job.
Robert wasn’t always homeless. He’s a college graduate and was married. He chokes up when he talks about his ex wife. These days, he keeps his hope in check: “Don’t get too crazy about what you want because you’re not going to achieve it,” he tells himself.
“My ambition is to see tomorrow’s sun come up.”
by formerly homeless Monday September 11, 2006 at 03:05 PM
as someone who used to be homeless i can tell you its not as simple as finding a job. what jobs? mcdonald's wont pay all your bills. my brothers a republican and he always says i dont work hard enough. given how hard mcdonalds works you they should pay 15 per hour, not just 5
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