Founded in 1970, HELP of Southern Nevada has grown into one of the leading nonprofit organizations in Las Vegas, working to help the homeless attain self-sufficiency. Chief Social Services Officer Kelly Robson oversees all five of HELP's social service programs, from emergency resource and homeless services to the new Shannon West Homeless Youth Center—which opened its doors in July—and the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team. The Weekly sat down with Robson to discuss issues facing the Las Vegas homeless population and the ways HELP of Southern Nevada provides vital services for those who need it most.
What got you interested in social services? Honestly, I thought I would be a physical therapist, but I took one science class and was like, what am I thinking? So I changed my major to psychology, and here I am.
What sorts of programs does HELP of Southern Nevada offer to the homeless? We have programs that put people from the streets into a [housing] unit, and then we do intensive case management with them. We break down all the barriers that led them to become homeless, and hopefully when the time is ready they’re self-sufficient and can sustain on their own. But we need a lot more housing and more homeless-prevention dollars. That’s one of the biggest challenges we face right now. We may be housing 50 people a month and taking them directly off the street, but if we’re not preventing hundreds of people from becoming homeless, [then they’re] entering our homeless system.
What are the most common reasons a person here might end up homeless? If you’re talking about a typical client who’s on the streets right now, most of them face mental health and drug abuse. A lot of our clients don’t know how to navigate our [health] system anymore. It’s not that they don’t want to get treatment, it’s that they don’t know how.
I don’t think anybody wakes up one morning thinking, “I’m going to go to Las Vegas and live on Foremaster and Main,” or “I’m going to live in the tunnels under the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign.” A lot of the abuse of drugs and alcohol comes from masking symptoms, because they’re not treated for their mental health. It’s all one big dilemma.
What might prevent someone who’s homeless from utilizing services, seeking treatment or going to a shelter? They might not be ready. It takes, sometimes, 10, 15, even 20 or 30 contacts with the same person to get them to trust you. A lot of the homeless people on the streets have been burned before—they’ve had people come and say “I’m going to do this” and “I’ll be back on this day,” and then nobody shows—so why would they take us at our word the first time we do it? It takes a lot of contact to get where they want to get some help.
Tell me about the new Shannon West Homeless Youth Center. We rank third in the nation for youth homelessness and first in the nation for unaccompanied street homelessness for youth. We raised $10 million dollars, and we said we’re just going to build. [The new center has] 166 beds. Our old building had 65 beds, so we’ve more than doubled. Right now we have 80 beds open; it’s just [a matter of] funding. For every 20 beds we open, we have to hire an additional case manager. It’s expensive to run, and we could help more youth if we were able to open all of the beds.
What are some of the issues homeless youth face here? A lot of it is education. Everybody who goes through our youth center, if they don’t have an education, whether it’s a GED or high school diploma, they have to go back to school. We know education is key to moving anywhere in this city as far as employment goes. We see a lot of LGBTQ kids who have come out to their parents, and the parents aren’t accepting of it and they have to go. There’s a lot of trafficking. It takes a while for them to realize we’re just here to help.
Speak about some of the successes from the Homeless Youth Center. Every day, a kid stays clean and sober—that’s a huge success for us. The kids who have truancy issues and are actually attending school and doing homework; the kids who got employed; the kids who are LGBTQ and are starting to break down the issues and talk about it and trust. For us, success is the little tiny things. We like to celebrate all of it.
How many people who enter HELP of Southern Nevada’s permanent supportive housing program end up self-sufficient? It’s about an 85 percent success rate. It may take them one or two times coming in to get it, to say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” It’s teaching them the littlest things: how to budget food stamps and making them last the whole month, going to the grocery store, getting their laundry done, getting to mental health appointments and getting their substance abuse treated—making sure that all the needs and barriers are broken down one by one to the point where they can be living on their own.
How can the community continue to support the homeless, not just during the holidays, but throughout the year? Obviously, we can always use monetary donations to put toward services for our clients. [And] we always need volunteers. Maybe it’s doing a donation drive and getting toiletries and cases of water, food, lotion, Chapstick, hand-warmers, gloves and feminine hygiene [products]. Maybe it’s teaching a group at our homeless youth center and teaching kids something. There’s so many things volunteers can do not just at Christmas but all year ’round.