With flashlights in hand, volunteers pierce through the darkness trying to figure out if the shadows in alleyways and underpasses are in fact people sleeping and living on the streets of Southern Nevada.
Overall, Nevada has one of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness in the nation according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report released in December estimates 56 percent of the state’s homeless population has no access to any sort of shelter. For the annual homeless census Tuesday night, groups of people scour the nooks and crannies of the city to tally the numbers.
As the temperature drops throughout the night — 45 degrees, 44 degrees, 41 degrees by midnight — the number of people found outside rises. “We found another two guys,” a volunteer reports to Ryan McDonald, the homeless services coordinator with Salvation Army. Around 60 are found by his group the first hour.
The homeless census, also called point-in-time count, isn’t just about searching for people in hidden locations. The count is followed by a more nuanced survey of the homeless population in the weeks to come in a combined effort to find out who’s on the streets, the contributing factors to their homelessness, the barriers people face when attempting to get off the streets and the specific needs they might have.
“Not only does the point-in-time count give us numbers and tell us how many people are experiencing homelessness and the type of homelessness, whether it’s sheltered or unsheltered,” says Michele Fuller-Hallauer, Continuum of Care Coordinator with Clark County Social Services, “the survey gives us a better sense of what led to their homeless situation.”
The information can lead to “myth-buster” moments that are important to Southern Nevada. “Consistently over the last few years, the survey has shown that 75 percent of folks were living and working here at the time they became homeless,” she adds. “It’s a big myth that people are flocking here in droves. That hasn’t proven to be true.”
The survey also helps confirm suspicions or clarify information. “It highlights things that aren’t surprising like the loss of jobs being a leading factor of homelessness,” Fuller-Hallauer adds.
Once the data is compiled into the annual Southern Nevada Comprehensive Report, which is released later in the year, Fuller-Hallauer says government officials and service providers can use the information to better address homelessness.
The numbers that come from the annual homeless census matter. For starters, it is mandated by HUD and helps determine how many grant dollars are allocated to communities – about $14 million last year, the region’s largest source of money for homeless services.
It also shows if homelessness has increased or decreased and how many people are living unsheltered.
In last year’s count, nearly 6,100 people were identified, which decreased from about 6,500 the year before. HUD had previously listed the Las Vegas metropolitan area as having the 8th highest homeless population despite the area being the nation’s 29th largest metropolitan statistical area.
Fuller-Hallauer didn’t know if the area’s ranking has changed — the annual report compiled by HUD didn’t specify either. “What I can say is we know 40 percent of unsheltered homeless living outside are found in 11 (metro areas) across the country,” she says. “We are within that 11 and in fact rank among the top five.”
According to the Southern Nevada Comprehensive Report of 2018, about 64 percent of those experiencing homelessness in Southern Nevada were unsheltered at the time of the count. In addition to finding Nevada as one of the highest overall unsheltered populations, the HUD report also showed the state had the highest unsheltered youth populations with nearly 84 percent.
As a result of some of those findings, Southern Nevada is receiving assistance from a joint tactical team, comprised of HUD, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the National Alliance to End Homelessness — Fuller-Hallauer says the other 11 places are receiving similar assistance.
Though she wasn’t able to comment on the specifics, she says there have already been meetings addressing emergency shelters and what adjustments can be made.
To conduct the count, Fuller-Hallauer says they rely on predetermined census tracts by the U.S. Census Bureau. Using data from collected from 911 calls and fire and rescue, they can determine what tracts are frequented by those who are homeless.
If there haven’t been any reports of homelessness in those areas in three consecutive years, those tracts are omitted from the next year’s count.
From 10 p.m. Tuesday until the early hours of Wednesday morning, volunteers walk and drive through 708 census tracts in Clark County.
McDonald and his team walk up and down Owens Avenue, Bonanza Avenue and Main Street tallying up the numbers around the homeless corridor. “I think the data (this year) is going to show we’ve made an impact,” he says. “There is still a lot of need.”
He instructs the team on how to count, not to peek inside tents and to try to determine the person’s age if possible. “For the clients in tents, we won’t be able to see how many are there so don’t open the tents,” he says. “Just count the structures in that encampment.”
Rather than waking people up in tents or vehicles, HUD has a formula to estimate the number of people sleeping in those structures. However, estimate guidelines decreased in the 2018 count.
Fuller-Hallauer doesn’t believe that change was the reason for the decrease in last year’s point-in-time numbers. “It’s a small piece, but not the entire amount,” she adds. “We do an analysis on the data and the number of folks moving out of homelessness. (The formula change) is not the reason for the decrease.”
As McDonald’s team strolls along the various streets, each volunteer reports their findings and McDonald records the information and marks the location where each person is found on a map. “We will turn the map in at the end of the night,” he says. “We give them to outreach teams so they can send out surveys.”
Conducted by service providers, outreach teams and peer support of those who are formerly homeless, surveys will be conducted over the next two weeks, Fuller-Hallauer says.
Fuller-Hallauer says the data gathered from early numbers of the point-in-time count will help prepare surveyors determine where they need to go.
In addition to breaking down ethnicity and gender identity, the information collected gives an outlook on how many homeless people use government benefits such as food stamps, if they have any source of income, what their barriers are to getting jobs or housing and if they have a medical condition.
There are still questions that could be better answered. “We know from our census a lot of people who are experiencing homeless struggle with substance abuse and mental illness,” she says. “What we don’t know is whether the substance abuse led to homelessness or if they were reacting to the trauma of being homeless.”
And after several years, the annual count and survey have also failed to answer one question in particular: What Southern Nevada is going to do to get its homeless into homes?