In the age of miracles

As social-service cuts get absurd, perhaps the only practical solutions are the impractical ones

It’s got to be a health hazard. It seems that trash is calf-high here in the homeless corridor on Main, jammed between tents and makeshift encampments. There are days when we’ve stopped to offer water, and the area smells of urine, and people appear from underneath tarps and behind cardboard scraps and line up for a cold bottle. You find yourself wishing for a broad-scale miracle, because practical solutions seem elusive.

It’s a scene that one community gadfly will call “a Third World country” at a meeting later this week. (“What kind of society are we?” homeless advocate Frank Perna will ask. “We seem to get greedier and more cruel.”) But on this day, with a formerly homeless woman riding shotgun, we’re thinking more practically. She’s not concerned with miracles or maudlin overviews, nor hyperbole of any sort. She says in passing, “If I were out here again, I’d want a tent like that.”

Indeed. A little shade. A little privacy. We drive on. Two days later, at the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s Committee on Homelessness, officials spend the first half of the meeting discussing progress—since 2001, more permanent and transitional housing has been created—and the last half preparing to roll back that progress because of budget cuts: Social Services staff will be fired, the Fertitta Community Assistance Center will shut down.

The moral tragedy of the recession is most disconcerting in this sector. While the state scrambles for revenue by taking from the county, the county takes from those who need help the most—those on the verge of homelessness or those trying to get out of it. Commissioners announced some $9.3 million will be cut from Clark County Social Services, $7 million of which will affect the indigent directly.

While we may take comfort in imagining the homeless all to be chronic ne’er-do-wells, the truth is that 71 percent of the estimated 4,300 homeless in Clark County have been homeless for less than a year, according to Shannon West, regional homeless services coordinator. The county had been working to keep high-risk households together: In fiscal 2009, the county issued 41,000 assistance checks to 17,000 households; 66 percent of the sheltered homeless were housed with Clark County Social Services dollars. When those programs are cut, more people will be on the street—the county estimates it will meet less than 50 percent of projected need in fiscal year 2010.

“We’re looking at 2,300 more homeless people,” Clark County Social Services’ Nancy McLane tells the committee on which she serves. “We’ve been put in a very difficult spot here.”

At this point in the meeting, as it does when you’re standing on Main Street and Foremaster, the practical thinking stalls. For lack of a better idea, the committee turns to wishing for miraculous solutions: an angel, or benefactor, to drop in and pick up the tab.

“If we could get a high roller from seven different casinos to make up that $7 million,” says committee member Rose Anne Miele of Boulder City.

“Until it kicks people in the head and starts overflowing into their backyards and they’ve got homeless people that they have to look at—maybe [then] somebody will put pressure on somebody to put the money where we need it,” Miele says.

Committeeman Gary Schofield recalls the days of a flood in Las Vegas, when the community came out to help one another, and he calls on people to do the same with the oncoming flood of homelessness.

“Living in a tent with no sanitation on the side of Main Street is not good,” Schofield says. “There has to be other people out there in the community to come forth. ... You need to understand the deluge of 2,000 to 3,000 people.”

Floods and angels. That’s what we’ve come to.

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