Southern Nevada had a 13 percent decrease in people experiencing homelessness, according to the 2019 Southern Nevada Homeless Census.
Good news, to be sure. But there is plenty of work left to be done, say advocates for those still living on the streets. That work includes tackling the root cause of homelessness.
“The 2019 homeless count shows we are headed in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” said Michael Pawlak, the director of Clark County Social Service. “There are still more than 5,200 homeless people in our community on any given day, and almost 14,000 people will experience homelessness here at some point during the year. Homelessness costs our community and those individuals dearly, and we will continue working to end homelessness here.”
Clark County officials and those of other governing bodies within the county’s borders are now focused on creating a working group to develop ways to reduce homelessness in Southern Nevada and identify potential revenue streams to implement their strategies. The effort is mandated by Assembly Bill 73, which lawmakers passed in the most recent session and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed in June.
“It’s best if we are all working together regionally because you can make comprehensive decisions for the long term,” said Clark County Commission Chair Marylin Kirkpatrick.
She said there used to be a coordinated effort where “everyone put their money into one bucket and did things together.” However, during the recession efforts became more siloed, and the area’s homeless population grew.
Though Thursday’s release of the results of the homeless or point-in-time count — which is mandated annually by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — reported the lowest number of people counted in years, the working group will figure out ways to enhance and collaborate on efforts.
“This (legislation) says formulate a plan, formulate some suggestions and then we will look for the revenue,” Kirkpatrick said. “We really do need to evaluate what’s really going on across the valley. We know homeless folks move from one intersection to the next intersection to the washes.”
While in the process of creating a working group, each government agency is still charting separate courses and moving forward on different projects to address homelessness.
Where the money is going
The City of Las Vegas spent $15 million in the last fiscal year on the Homeless Courtyard Resource Center, which offers nightly outdoor sleeping accommodations and provides some services such as helping people obtain vital documents like birth certificates.
An additional $5 million has been allocated for the Courtyard’s operations budget in fiscal year 2020. The initial phase of the Courtyard opened in 2017, but the final phase of its expansion is expected to be completed in 2022.
The county spends a little over $50 million on programs and services for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness — $39 million comes from taxpayers and $14 million comes from state and federal grants.
In January, the Clark County Commission said it would use an estimated $12 million from marijuana business license fees for homeless services. Over the past few months, commissioners have allocated that money.
Commissioners approved $855,000 for Shannon West Homeless Youth Shelter, which houses homeless youth, and $930,000 to go toward rapidly rehousing homeless people who are medically fragile.
Another $6.1 million was approved in June to go toward rapid rehousing, rental assistance and case management for families experiencing homelessness, which created about 580 beds in the community.
Lack of affordable housing at the root
While the working group has until October 2020 to offer recommendations on homelessness in Southern Nevada, it is yet to be seen how much of the group’s focus will be on creating more affordable and low-income housing projects — homeless advocates stress that the lack of affordable housing has contributed to homelessness.
Nevada ranks the worst in the nation in terms of affordable housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. There are only 19 homes per 100 extremely low-income renters — household with incomes that are at or below the poverty guideline or 30 percent of their area median income.
Southern Nevada is short about 59,000 units for extremely low income units. “You think about that, the cost of living goes up, but not necessarily someone’s Social Security checks,” Kirkpatrick said.
Part of the problem is that low wages put homes out of reach for many. In Clark County, a person would need to make at least $15 an hour to afford a one bedroom apartment and $18 an hour to afford a two bedroom unit.
Nevada’s minimum wage is currently $8.25 — $7.25 if a company offers health insurance — and won’t reach $12 until 2024.
A push for inclusionary housing
Most of the bills that passed, or failed, during the legislative session were designed to empower local governments to implement their own strategies to deal with the affordable housing crisis. As state Sen. Julia Ratti previously told the Current: “It’s very important that policies that support affordable housing are market-driven. We need to be responsive to specific market conditions of that community.”
The county is in the process of formulating recommendations to respond to the affordable housing crisis, and is already overseeing the development of new projects. Additionally, it has set aside 10 parcels of land for the development of affordable housing.
“Nothing is off the table,” Kirkpatrick said.
Other ideas the county is looking at include developing a local housing trust fund with a dedicated revenue stream, reducing fee waivers for developers or promoting policies like inclusionary zoning, which require a certain share of development go toward affordable housing projects. (Earlier this year, Washoe County approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund to designate funds specifically for housing projects.)
In a recent City of Las Vegas council meeting, Councilman Cedric Crear said developers should be required to create a certain portion of affordable and low-income housing.
“One of the areas I think we have not discussed is inclusionary housing,” he said. “… we need to figure out ways that we can potentially have set asides or some way of working with developers coming into our wards.”
Kirkpatrick isn’t necessarily opposed to the idea. “I would like to know what the definition of inclusionary zoning is, because if you look at all the states in the country, everyone has a different idea of what that means,” she added.
The county, she added, provides some resources to residents to help with apartment deposits and rent subsidies. Other cities across the country have tried to deal with rising rents through rent control or rent stabilization efforts.
“At what point does that raise the (apartment) deposit value?” Kirkpatrick asked. “How does that work? We are always open to looking at anything, but you still have to have a balance.”
The County Commission is expected to be fully briefed sometime in September on the various strategies it could take on affordable housing and how those approaches would affect the community.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “We are not going to get out of this overnight.”