Chronic homelessness soars despite decrease in homeless population

count tally
Ryan McDonald, the homeless services coordinator with Salvation Army, checks his board during the annual homeless count in Southern Nevada in January. (Nevada Current file photo)

Those entering homelessness are staying on the streets longer, which means more of them are chronically homeless.

New data from the 2019 Southern Nevada Homeless Census showed while the overall homeless population decreased, there was a 19 percent increase in the number of those who are chronically homeless, jumping from 505 in 2018 to 622 this year.

“It’s been steadily increasing over the last five years,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. 

While the “point in time” count gives a depiction of one night, Paulsen said other data collected by homeless organizations suggest the number of those who are chronically homeless might be even higher. “The point in time count just gives us a snapshot on any given night,” she added.

Chronically homeless is a specific subset of people who have experienced homelessness for at least one year — or have had more than four episodes of homelessness in three years — and also have a disabling condition.

Data from 2018 shows that nearly 40 percent of Southern Nevada’s homeless population has been on the streets for a year or longer: 17 percent are homeless one to two years, 5 percent are two to three years and 15 percent are three or more years. (The 2019 homeless census didn’t indicate the length of time people were staying on the streets.)

According to the 2019 data, of the disabling conditions among those experiencing chronic homelessness: 

  • 48 percent reported having a mental illness such as depression or post traumatic stress disorder.
  • 41 percent reported having a physical or medical condition.
  • 4 percent have a substance abuse disorder.
  • 2 percent were living with HIV.
  • 2 percent have a developmental disorder.

Homeless outreach experts note that chronic homelessness costs about $73,000 a year — hospitalization, incarceration, policing, other services add to that costs. That’s opposed to an estimated $21,000 it cost to put a person in permanent housing with case management and supportive services.

“We need to have more affordable housing and landlords willing to work with service providers so we can place those in housing and wrap them in services,” said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, the Clark County Social Service Manager

Additionally, as people grow older and develop age-related conditions, they essentially age into chronic homelessness, further increasing the population. 

Local homeless organizations have developed the Built for Zero Housing Campaign Fund to try to raise funds to specifically increase the number of permanent supportive housing units to decrease chronic homelessness.

In the last year, Paulsen said, they have been able to secure supportive housing for 50 people who were chronically homeless. 

“Affordable housing is the basis for any success”

Overall, the report cites a 9 percent decrease in the number of those experiencing homelessness — falling from nearly 6,100 to about 5,500.

Despite noting progress, an estimated 14,000 people will still experience homelessness at some point in the year. About 60 percent of the people experiencing homelessness remain unsheltered. 

Fuller-Hallauer said this year’s homeless census put more emphasis on Southern Nevada’s lack of affordable housing and how it contributes to rates of homelessness. 

“We realized we needed to tell our story in a different way and present the information so it gives more of a context to what’s happening,” she added. “Affordable housing is the basis for any success in our system. Affordable housing is the key to keeping people from becoming homeless.”

In January, the Clark County Commission said it would allocate an estimated $12 million from marijuana business license fees for homeless services to go toward various homeless services.

Since then, commissioners have approved $855,000 for Shannon West Homeless Youth Shelter, $930,000 to go toward rapidly rehousing homeless people who are medically fragile, and $6.1 million to go toward rapid rehousing, rental assistance and case management for families experiencing homelessness to created about 580 beds in the community.

During an Aug. 7 council meeting, the Las Vegas City Council approved two resolutions to direct $22 million toward creating a 420-united affordable housing project in partnership with Nevada HAND. 

In July, the council approved about $200,000 from the general fund to go toward two organizations that work with housing homeless individuals — Veterans Village was allocated $101,000 while the Women’s Development Center was given about $125,000 — which added an estimated 25 rental transitional housing units.

Clark County officials and those of other governing bodies within the county’s borders are also part of 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 legislative session and Gov. Steve Sisolak signed in June.

Fuller-Hallauer said the census, which gives an overview of homeless numbers as well as draws attention to the need for affordable housing, underscores the need to fund and develop more housing projects.

A fluid population

In addition to the lack of affordable housing, other causes of homelessness, according to the census, include unemployment, substance abuse issues, mental health, asked to leave a friend or family member’s home or medical problems. 

Nevada continues to have the highest rates of youth homelessness, according to the report. On any given night, there are about 1,200 homeless youth. 

An estimated 585 families entered into homelessness, citing job loss, divorce and issues with landlords as leading causes. 

“The biggest thing to remember is that this is a point in time count,” Fuller-Hallauer said. “It’s just that. A point in time. A snapshot on any given day. It’s not reflective of a full system and the way folks move in and out of homeless services in that system.”

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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