City estimates 1 in 5 inmates are homeless but doesn’t know why

(Nevada Current file photo)

The City of Las Vegas’ Department of Public Safety roughly estimates that one in five people incarcerated at the city jail are homeless.

That number, as city spokesman Jace Radke explained, is complicated. The department doesn’t differentiate between inmates who are genuinely homeless at the time of arrest and those who lack identification and refuse to give an address, who could still be homeless. The city jail’s capacity is 1,103. 

At a Dec. 2 public hearing on the City of Las Vegas’ latest ordinance that restricts sidewalk use, which homeless outreach workers and civil rights groups say criminalizes homelessness, Councilwoman Michele Fiore said that homeless people aren’t getting arrested.

“Every time someone comes up here and says we’re putting a homeless person in jail, I would really like for you to show me when the city of Las Vegas has ever jailed a homeless person,” Fiore told those opposing the ordinance.

However, Southern Nevada doesn’t collect data showing how many homeless individuals are incarcerated, if their crimes are homeless related, how often they recidivate or how their detention affects their potential to exit homelessness. 

The Nevada Current last week asked the City of Las Vegas jail and the Clark County Detention Center (CCDC) to provide data on how many people were incarcerated for crimes outreach workers say are related to homelessness such as remaining in a park after hours or obstructive use of a sidewalk. 

The city of Las Vegas has already passed one ordinance that banned sleeping and camping on downtown sidewalks and is positioned to move forward on a second proposal, which those opposed say could increase incarceration rates among homeless.

Shalimar Cabrera, the executive director of the nonprofit U.S. Vets-Las Vegas, said rather than passing another ordinance it’s important to stop and look at the impact.

“Did we think through (the ordinance) and all the implications and what the effect was going to be once it’s implemented?” she asked.  

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department doesn’t currently track the number of homeless individuals who are incarcerated at CCDC.  

During a presentation at the Nov. 14 Southern Nevada Homeless Continuum of Care board, which is comprised of representatives from social service agencies and municipalities, Brenda Herbstman with Clark County said the issue of homelessness increasing the population at the Clark County Detention Center was brought up in 2012.

“CCDC approached Clark County Social Service with their issue of overcrowding and their hypothesis that it was due to inmates who were qualified to be released on house arrest but couldn’t be released due to not having a home to go to,” she said. “It brought up the question about how many inmates were experiencing homelessness.”

As a result, the county applied for a grant in 2013 to study the intersection between homelessness and the criminal justice system. A count was conducted in 2015 to “determine if the inmates who were homeless upon entry were also frequent users of the criminal justice system.”

The County was unable to provide requested records or documents of the results of that count.

Michele Fuller-Hallauer, the social service manager for Clark County, said she doesn’t recall if the count included looking at the crimes associated with homeless inmates’ incarceration.  

No other efforts to count the homeless population in Southern Nevada jails have been done.

While the community conducts an annual “point-in-time count” to comply with guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development, HUD prohibits the counting of incarcerated homeless individuals. 

The Homeless Management Information System is the main tool providers in Southern Nevada use to keep track of individuals who accessed services or have undergone a housing assessment, which has a current waitlist of about 1,800 people. 

During a previous interview, Emily Paulsen with the Nevada Homeless Alliance said if a person is out of touch with the service system for 90 days, they are taken off the waitlist because “we have to make the assumption they’ve either self-resolved, moved out of the community or they are in an institution, which could include jail or a nursing home.” 

Fuller-Hallauer said the 2015 count done in CCDC uncovered gaps. “We found the detention center doesn’t talk to the city of Las Vegas Jail or Henderson jail,” she said. “We found out it was really, really hard to share data between the jails.”

It also showed that HMIS isn’t connected with any detention facility. 

“There are potential legal issues regarding the confidentiality of information received from people who are incarcerated that we have had to consider and take into account,” said Dan Kulin, a spokesman from Clark County. “Also, as the computer systems used by the jails and us are different, we needed to create a way for those systems to exchange information.” 

The county received a grant in 2018 to help expand data collection to identify chronically homeless who cycle through the criminal justice system — known as “frequent users” — in Southern Nevada. “We expect to be able to bring data from the jails into HMIS within a year or so,” Kulin added. 

Instead of doing a homeless count within all the detention facilities, which Fuller-Hallauer said would be labor intensive, fixing the current gaps among the jails and homeless providers would be more sustainable in the long term.

“It will help us identify the folks who end up cycling in and out of our jails and help get them into housing,” she said. 

While Fuller-Hallauer didn’t know the specifics from the 2015 count, she said the findings were also enough to warrant creating a supportive housing program to focus on chronically homeless individuals who cycle in and out of jail. Chronically homeless are those who have experienced homelessness for at least one year or more years, have had more than four episodes of homelessness in three years and also have a disabling condition..

By the time the county was awarded a grant in 2017 to house chronically homeless inmates upon their release, Fuller-Hallauer said HUD tightened the definitions around chronically homeless and fewer people fit into the category, which limit the county’s effectiveness to use the grant.

In 2018, the county applied for an additional grant to better fit the new HUD definitions and created a new program from that grant called Stability, Tenancy, Access, Restore Transitional Housing — Rapid Rehousing, which is designed to help “frequent users who are literally homeless at the time of arrest.” 

The program, which started housing inmates this year, provides up to two years of short-term housing and case management. Fuller-Hallauer said more than 20 people have been housed. 

Each detention facility in Southern Nevada is supposed to have a case manager or social worker that conducts assessments for inmates eligible for the program.

When asked what case management those experiencing homelessness receive while they are incarcerated or as they plan to leave, Radke, the city spokesman, said Naphcare, a privately contracted company that provides health care in correctional facilities, does discharge planning for inmates. 

However, a Naphcare spokesman said it only provides medical discharge planning and no case management.

The other resource the city jail provides inmates upon exiting is a two-page sheet that includes numbers for local shelters and homeless organizations. Paulsen said the guide wasn’t made specifically for the jail but rather for any community agency that wants to provide resources or referrals. 

“It’s not a bad thing they are handing out a resource guide, because it’s a good resource guide and we work hard to make sure this resource guide is current,” she added. “I hope more than that would be made available to people who are homeless and exiting detention.”

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.