Alfonso Gallardo can barely get through a sentence without collapsing into sobs. He’s remembering walking the streets of Las Vegas, homeless—with his daughter, Hazel, in tow, sleeping at the Greyhound bus station and staying awake to protect her.
Frank and Carolyn Jones had it all one year and nothing the next. They lost everything and wound up sleeping in local parks with their children.
Angela and Ken Ferreira had to vacate their apartment the day after Christmas, with no idea where they would live. Their children helped them pack everything into the family’s car on Christmas day.
These are the faces of homelessness in Las Vegas. It’s unsettling how easily it can happen to a family in today’s world of rampant foreclosures and high unemployment. All the families mentioned here were stable, happy and safe—until the moment they weren’t. It happened for each of them with terrifying speed.
Homelessness has declined 1 percent nationwide since 2009, according to a recent report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But that statistic hardly tells the entire story. During the same time period, “doubled up” households increased by 13 percent. And families below the poverty line (household income around $22,000 for a family of four) paying at least half of their monthly income on housing increased by 22 percent. With no guarantee that Congress will make homelessness a priority, the situation could get even worse before it gets better.
Fortunately, there’s an active network of agencies in Las Vegas battling the issue every day. Most of them are swamped, but the biggest challenge isn’t getting help for families. It’s getting them to come forward. The stigma of homelessness can be debilitating, particularly for single fathers, says Terry Lindemann, director of Family Promise, a nationwide nonprofit agency that partners with faith houses and community organizations toward ending homelessness.
Their consistent message to families: Homelessness is not your fault. Grab onto hope, tell us your story and get the help you need.
Frank and Carolyn Jones opened Frank and Carol’s 250 Cleaners in 2006, after Carolyn worked for 25 in the dry-cleaning business. The couple had a home and made a nice living for their children, Isaiah, 15, and Victoria, 11. But 2006 was also the year Carolyn was diagnosed with colon cancer. And the year, they say, their partner in the business, the pastor of their church, embezzled their $250,000 life savings. (He was never prosecuted and has since vanished.)
Frank and Carolyn scraped together what little money they had left and put $5,000 down on a North Las Vegas home with intentions of buying it, then discovered that the house had been foreclosed upon already. They had been duped out of their last cushion. That, Carolyn says, is when things got “really, really, really bad.” They lost their business, their home and, eventually, their car.
Too sick to work, Carolyn tried applying for Social Security benefits, but was denied. (She’s currently on her third appeal.) The only money coming in was her husband’s $674-a-month disability check, for a knee condition that affects his ability to walk.
With Carolyn on expensive medication, the family struggled every day. Sometimes they could afford a room at Budget Suites, other times they would stay at Carolyn’s mother’s house. Sometimes, there was no space available. “There was one period of time where we stayed at Deer Springs Park for three or four days in a row,” Carolyn remembers.
“You feel like you’re nothing, like you’re nobody,” Carolyn says, fighting back emotions. “But it can happen. You’re one paycheck away from being homeless. You can be way up there, and one morning everything is totally different. It’s like a nightmare you can’t come up out of.”
And then in 2010, while at the Salvation Army, Frank and Carolyn met Stacy Youngblood, a city caseworker. Youngblood got the Jones family into the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, a $1.5 billion program funded by the 2009 federal stimulus package. The program got them into the Cypress Springs Apartments with rental assistance, which was supposed to last six months, though Youngblood was able to extend the HPRP assistance for the Jones family to a year.
Youngblood also introduced Frank and Carolyn to Family Promise and Barbara Coggins, the program manager of the Promises to Keep permanent housing program, in 2011.
“They were just stellar clients,” Coggins says. Lindemann applied for a HUD grant under Promises to Keep, and the Jones family was quickly approved. As Coggins explains, “It’s permanent housing for adults and children, where one of the adults has a documented disability. The whole purpose is to become self-sufficient and keep their dignity and live no different than you or I.”
Last October, the Jones family moved into a three-bedroom condo at Cheyenne and Durango, and they’re now on a waiting list for a car through Recycled Rides, which partners with Family Promise.
The housing is permanent for up to three years as long as the Jones family is compliant with the program’s terms. But as Coggins explains, “self-sufficiency” doesn’t necessarily mean increased income. “It can mean learning to tie your shoes, play the piano, learn more about Microsoft Word. It’s being able to have a sustainable life. That’s what we’re working toward.”
As long as the Jones family remains compliant, the grant will continue to be renewed every three years, and they can stay in the program—and their home—for life.
For the first time in years, Frank and Carolyn are looking to the future. “Isaiah is talking about going to college,” Frank says, proudly. And self-sufficiency means giving back. Frank, an ex-Marine, wants to pursue social work at the Veterans Administration. Carolyn, who has been through three surgeries in her ongoing cancer battle, visits a senior citizens’ home three days a week to minister. “It helps me mentally,” she says.
More than anything, the support her children gave her through the depressing ordeal stands out to Carolyn. “All they wanted was for me to get well,” Carolyn says, thinking back to her diagnosis in 2006. “My son was barely 11, and he’s acting like a 20-year-old.”
Slipping through the cracks
Alfonso Gallardo spent the majority of his life in construction, making a nice living for himself and his family. He never wanted any help, never had to ask for any. A legal U.S. resident through 2021, Alfonso is the epitome of a workhorse—20 years ago he suffered a massive back injury on the job in California, herniating three discs in the process, but finished out his shift anyway.
He remained in construction as a foreman, continuing to provide for his family, while buying and selling homes in Pomona, Covina and finally, Mexico. He came to Nevada in 2006 to pursue work while his family remained in California. Alfonso visited them every 15 days, but in 2009, he found himself unemployed. Never having had to navigate this country’s social services system, Alfonso didn’t apply for unemployment benefits, and was soon unable to support his family. He and his wife separated soon after, and she took the family, including his daughter, Hazel (now 14), to Mexico.
Desperate for work, Alfonso went to Arizona for a few months to work on a hospital construction project. He then moved to California for a few months to pursue other work and live with family.
In broken English and through tears, Alfonso describes the confrontation he had with one of his brothers in 2011: “I ended up living by myself because my brother said, ‘You can’t be like that. You have to get help.’” While still in California, he applied for Social Security disability for his back problems, which never went away, but was denied.
“Other people, they make me feel like nothing. I don’t have any money and I move on buses back and forth. I sell everything little by little. So soon the car was gone.”
Later that year, Alfonso attended a funeral in Mexico, borrowing $800 from his brother to take the bus down. While there, Hazel begged him to bring her back to America. Taking the trip back with his daughter made Alfonso feel normal again, but the feeling was short-lived—all of Hazel’s belongings, including her paperwork, were stolen at the border. By this time, Alfonso had only $300 left and couldn’t afford to take the bus back to family in California. He settled on Las Vegas.
With no unemployment check coming in and only the money from his brother remaining, Alfonso and Hazel walked the streets for a while. She went to school, and they spent their nights at the Greyhound bus station Downtown. Then Hazel started getting sick. Noticing that, a school official referred Alfonso to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. Hazel was quickly placed into a home in the program, while Alfonso was directed to the Salvation Army. He had never seen a homeless shelter before, and the experience scared him.
“I see a lot of people sick and real bad, and I decided to walk, not to stay there, but walk around,” Alfonso says. He saw Hazel for a few hours each day, but mostly just wandered the city for weeks, refusing handouts. “They give me some food, but I don’t need food. I need someplace to stay.”
Fortunately, one of Family Promise’s part-time case managers, Joe Taylor, is also a program manager at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. This past September, he got Alfonso to go see Aaron Sheets, an intake case worker for Family Promise.
“They didn’t ask for any food, but they were very hungry, we could tell that,” Sheets says. “We place a priority on keeping families together, and we were able to adjust some things, call some people and get them in immediately, which is not something we’re normally able to do.”
Alfonso’s case fell under the Community Partnership for Opening Doors, a permanent housing program funded by Credit One Bank. Through a partnership with Neighborhood Housing Services of Southern Nevada, Family Promise administers rental assistance to qualifying families. (NHS works to place those families in affordable housing and to educate them on home ownership.)
In addition, Family Promise contacted Nevada JobConnect, which set Alfonso up with unemployment benefits from Arizona—his last recorded place of employment. It’s not much, just $240 a week, but when those benefits run out in 16 months, he’ll be eligible for Nevada unemployment benefits of $420 a week, Sheets says.
On October 21, Alfonso and Hazel moved into a two-bedroom North Las Vegas apartment. He received a car from Recycled Rides and is actively looking for a job—part of his sustainability plan—while paying an adjusted monthly rent. “He was very happy,” Sheets remembers. “You could see the stress melt off of him.”
The housing is permanent for one year, with the goal of getting the family stabilized within the first six months. The next six are spent helping the family budget and learn how to apply for a home through Habitat for Humanity. If Alfonso chooses, he can continue to remain in the apartment beyond the first year, provided he adheres to the program’s requirements.
Lindemann says stories like Alfonso’s are all-too-common in Nevada and beyond. “Alfonso has never had to go to the system to get help,” Lindemann says. “He’s an extremely proud man who has had to work to earn his living. He is exactly the type of person in America that falls through the cracks.”
Alfonso was recently offered a job in California, but he opted to stay in Nevada, not just because he wants stability for Hazel, but because of the help he’s getting and the people he’s met. “I never expected to get the help I got. I’m so happy right now.”
Hope where there is none
Angela and Ken Ferreira lived a life many Las Vegans can relate to: Both worked, their children were in school, and they rented an apartment in an area they had grown to love.
But, as Angela puts it, a “domino effect” crushed their world last fall—fast. In September, Angela lost her job at Macy’s. In November, Ken’s pay and hours as a patrol supervisor for a security company were cut. And then, on November 30, Angela was admitted to the hospital. She’s not ready to explain why.
She was there for a week, during which time the couple got a “no cause” notice on their front door giving them 30 days to leave their apartment. No reason, just get out. The Ferreiras had a signed lease, but it expired on December 1.
Panic set in. Ken, who has suffered from panic disorder since age 15, says he completely “shut down,” while his wife frantically looked for options to allow them to stay in their home. She called HELP of Southern Nevada, Hopelink and other agencies, but didn’t like their suggestion—to stay somewhere temporarily while searching for permanent housing. “I just wasn’t listening,” she says. “I thought we could somehow stay here.”
And things soon got worse. Angela was taken to the hospital again in mid-December. Then, one morning while Ken was getting ready for work, a constable pounded on the door and left a notice—the Ferreiras were to be out in 24 hours. Ken took time off work and went to the courthouse to get an extension. After several miscues and several days of missed income, he got one—through the day after Christmas. Although Ken and Angela’s children, Dahlia, 13, and Nicolas, 11, kept up a brave front, Angela knew the stress was getting to them. “We really thought the police were going to come along and throw us out,” she says.
By now, Angela and Ken’s case had come to the attention of Family Promise, after Channel 8’s Colleen McCarty—whom Angela had contacted by email—directed them to the organization. Their first conversation with Lindemann didn’t go well.
“When you’re panicking and in that frame of mind, you’re not going to make sense, you’re going to sound … almost screaming,” Angela recalls. “I initially denied her assistance, because all I could think of was, ‘Let me figure out a way to stay here.’”
Lindemann says that’s a common reaction. “Nine times out of 10, families have not experienced this before, and they are very proud and hesitant to go into any type of shelter,” Lindemann says.
When Christmas day rolled around, Angela called Lindemann again. And this time it wasn’t about the Ferreiras keeping their home—it was about them being homeless.
Lindemann tapped Sheets for assistance, and he contacted Hopelink, which gave the family money to stay in a motel until January 2, when they could be housed at Family Promise’s 9th Street offices. That’s where they are today, with an apartment near Sahara and Lamb expected to open up in early February.
Family Promise, which describes itself as an interfaith sheltering program but not a religious one, also houses several other families at its Downtown facility until more permanent housing can be found. The resource center is home base for these families from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and during the night, families sleep in congregational buildings—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim. “We don’t proselytize, nor do the faith houses,” Lindemann says. “Individual religious perspectives are not attached to the service at any time.” They’ve operated here for 16 years and are almost always at capacity.
The Ferreiras qualified for the housing program at Lutheran Social Services. Angela isn’t working yet, but Ken resumed his old job last week (he had been on a leave of absence to follow the program’s “personal responsibility” plan). As his monthly income increases, so will his rent. LSS rent corresponds to income—even if the couple had nothing, they could have stayed there. “That kind of housing is very rare, so we were very fortunate to get them in,” Sheets says.
Angela says it’s easy to give up hope when economic disaster strikes. Then she takes a deep breath and explains why she went to the hospital.
“It was a feeling of shame. The complete hopelessness. In late November, we were really having problems, and I couldn’t find a job … I woke up that morning and I took Ken’s whole bottle of Celexa. I went to the hospital because I OD’d and my heart stopped.”
She says the experience only strengthened her resolve to keep going. “It made me realize I was being very selfish. You can be depressed, but you need to do something about it. You have a family to think about.”
For those who find themselves in similar situations, Angela has one word: hope.
“I feel like I have hope for the first time in a long time, and it is actually through these people that I have that,” she says, her tears flowing freely. “I’m not ashamed of myself anymore for being in this position. I’m not a worthless cause. They told me, ‘You can do this. You will do this.’”
Family Promise’s Sheets has a message for anyone in search of the kind of help the Jones, Gallardo and Ferreira families so desperately needed: “We’re in the business of hope; that’s what we do here. We try to relate that to people: There’s always hope. Don’t give up.”