Winter is coming… and homelessness isn’t going away

winter
The Care Package Coalition passes out winter items to help people experiencing homelessness prepare for the colder months. Photo: Michael Lyle

Like the summer heat, the winter cold can present life-threatening challenges to those experiencing homelessness.

Southern Nevada policymakers have long struggled to effectively address causes of — and solutions to — homelessness. Meanwhile, winter is coming, triggering annual actions by social service organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, to at least try to help people living on the streets cope with the elements.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Las Vegas has the 8th highest homeless population despite being only the nation’s 29th largest metropolitan area. On any given night, there are more than 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada and about 67 percent are unsheltered, according to the 2018 Southern Nevada Homeless Census.

Experts agree the way to address homelessness is through housing — keeping people in housing, offering low-income and affordable housing and rapid-rehousing for those who fall on bad times.

Washoe County, which recently had space donated from the state, announced plans to open a new campus to house an additional 225 people. The City of Las Vegas, meanwhile, has put efforts into its Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which currently offers housing assessments along with a range of services such as document retrieval and mental health assessments.

“A lot of people all over the country are working to solve the problem rather than manage the problem,” says Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“In the meantime,” homeless people in Southern Nevada and elsewhere across the country “have to deal with the immediate dangers they deal with,” Berg said.

“We all know succumbing to the elements, both extreme hot and cold, is an issue,” says Lou Lacey, with HELP of Southern Nevada. Each year there are scattered reports of homeless Nevadans dying from the cold, though the Nevada Office of Epidemiology wouldn’t confirm the number of such deaths in recent years.

“I couldn’t guess what the numbers are,” Lacey said.

The most pressing winter-related illnesses include hypothermia, in which the body loses heat faster than the body is able to generate heat, and frostbite.

Under the right circumstances people can develop hypothermia, says Vit Kraushaar, a medical epidemiologist with the Southern Nevada Health District. “A lot of factors are in play such as wind chill, or if it’s wet or dry.”

Beyond the weather, Kraushaar says other factors such as malnutrition, drug and alcohol use and medical conditions can increase people’s odds of succumbing to cold-related illnesses.

“A hell of an idea”

Brandon McCrystal, who cofounded the homeless resource nonprofit The Care Package Project with his wife, remembers the six months he was homeless. “It was the end of winter,” he says. “I would try to layer. I even started stuffing my jacket with newspaper to insulate.”

Even in his car, the nights could be brutal. “I had a gym membership so I could go and take a hot shower to warm up,” he says. During the colder months, in addition to daily frustrations of living on the streets, he was worried he would get pneumonia and be unable to recover.

Across the county, Berg says municipalities and nonprofits develop plans to help people living on the streets survive the weather. Those plans might include reducing barriers to shelter, like getting rid of sobriety requirements altogether, or converting gymnasiums and recreation centers into overnight shelters once harsh weather hits.

“Nothing like that has been discussed to my knowledge, but it’s a hell of an idea,” Lacey says. “I think even if we could use some of those closed down shopping centers to turn them into temporary shelters that would be awesome. That’s something on my wish list, but I don’t know who would need to get the ball rolling on that.”

Local government officials say they’ve never heard of anyone proposing to convert vacant commercial property into shelter space.

Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin said he thinks gyms and rec centers have been temporarily opened in past years, “Just for the most extreme cases when there is going to be a freeze.”

On a more regular basis, Southern Nevada opens a handful of designated recreation centers as day shelters if temperatures are extreme — 110 degrees and higher in the summer and 40 degrees and cooler in the winter.

For those looking for a place to sleep at night, there are about 1,800 emergency shelter beds in Southern Nevada. Shelters remain full year-round, and some come with a nominal cost and barriers, such as a sobriety requirement.

“If someone tries to come in who isn’t sober, we might place them in another area to help them sober up,” says Leslie Carmine, a spokeswoman with Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

Heather Engle, the executive director at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, says the nonprofit also looks at lowering barriers during extreme weather months.

In addition to those beds, the city opened the Courtyard, which now allows about 150 people to sleep in the open-air space — there isn’t a sobriety requirement for those who sleep there. Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher with the City of Las Vegas says they are currently installing outdoor space heaters to prepare for the winter months.

Coffin says he has requested more mattresses to be added and for some sort of cover to be erected for the winter months.

When beds are fully occupied during the winter months, the county offers vouchers for weekly stay hotels — but only about 600 each season, which are only used in the most dire times.

Lacey says HELP of Southern Nevada also allocates vouchers for hotels in extreme circumstances. “We have that option, but it’s limited because of money,” he says. “So we have to use discernment and decide who is the most vulnerable.”

The non-profit Family Promise Las Vegas partners with local congregations to house families and couples — it’s the only organization that keeps families experiencing homelessness together. “We notice when it gets really cold or really hot, even the families sleeping in cars or doubling up with other people find it’s too difficult,” says Terry Lindemann, the executive director of Family Promise.

They have about five families sleeping at various congregations, with an average stay of about 45 days.

‘People don’t realize the need for socks’

When all other options are exhausted or people decide not to use shelter — that can be because they view them as unsafe, or don’t want to abide certain shelter rules — groups resort to passing out necessary survival tools: blankets, sleeping bags, winter coats, hand warmers.

“We will probably give out a thousand coats,” Engle says. “We get between 300 and 600 people who come for dinner. Not all go into shelter. Those who don’t, we try to send them out with as many provisions as possible to deal with the elements.”

HELP of Southern Nevada increases the frequency of periodic checks on the population during extreme weather months. “It’s similar to when it starts to rain and we go to talk to the people living in the tunnels,” Lacey says. “We use the same type of protocol.”

For those who don’t want shelter or live in areas of town that aren’t close to the homeless corridor, where all the shelters and services are located, Lacey and his team will fan out and distribute sleeping bags and blankets.

Those living on the streets also look for resources wherever they can find them.

On a Sunday afternoon in October, Taylor and Brandon McCrystal with the Care Package Project set up a table across the street from Salvation Army, which is in the homeless corridor. “We have both been on the streets and know the need,” says Taylor McCrystal. “So we are here to give back.”

They have been stocking up on winter coats, blankets and comforters, hand warmers and socks and shoes. “People don’t realize the need for socks,” Brandon McCrystal says. “If you can’t take care of your feet, you can’t take care of the rest of you.”

Almost immediately, they run out of the 50 blankets and comforters they brought. This won’t be the only time they hand out winter provisions. “Next month, we are doing a scarf tying event where we go and tie scarves and gloves to trees,” she says. “That way, people can take whatever they need.”

It’s not the only organization collecting winter items.

On a windy, October morning, Leon, who’s been on the streets off and on for 10 years, and Julie, who has been homeless about three years, stop by Pop-up Project Homeless Connect, a once-a-month event put on by the Nevada Homeless Alliance to connect homeless individuals with services.

They know the temperatures at night are starting to drop and they won’t have a place to stay, so they do the only thing they can think of — find more clothes.

“Especially new shoes,” Julie says. “That’s what we always need the most.”

Stopping by a booth set up by the Church at Las Vegas, they grab some new sweaters and a couple of wool blankets.

People working to help the homeless survive the winter know they are meeting a need, but they also know that public policy is failing to address underlying issues.

in the meantime, “We are taking initiative to try to deal with the life-threatening issues people are facing,” Lacey says.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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