Jail is not a solution to homelessness, officials agree. And yet…

By: - January 24, 2020 8:23 am
March for the Poor protest

Protesters set up tents and occupied the intersection of Fremont Street and Casino Center Boulevard on Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as a statement against recent City of Las Vegas ordinances that target the homeless. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)

More than 4,600, or 6 percent, of the people booked last year at Clark County Detention Center were identified as homeless.

Another 5,200, or 15 percent, were incarcerated at the City of Las Vegas jail — 2,900 for the city of Las Vegas and 2,200 for the City of North Las Vegas, which are both housed in the same facility.

But incarceration and law enforcement officials presenting data to a regional committee studying homelessness acknowledge those numbers are only estimates, and thanks to inadequate tracking and data collection, almost certainly wrong.

“That number, more than likely, it’s probably not a completely accurate count,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Neldon Barrowes told social service providers and local officials Thursday. “For one thing that’s just people identified as homeless. It also probably involves several repeat offenders identified as homeless each time they are arrested.”

The committee, which is comprised of social services agencies and local officials, is legislative mandated group that is tasked with identify solutions to homelessness and potential funding sources to implement those solutions. Assembly Bill 73, where the working group is derived from, was originally proposed by the City of Las Vegas to create a funding mechanism for homeless services, but was gutted and turned into the committee.

Social service and government agencies have been providing information on how they interact with those experiencing homelessness to get a better understanding of work being done in Southern Nevada.

Metro, along with the City of Las Vegas Department of Public Safety, were the latest to present to the groups to provide an overview of homeless individuals who are incarcerated and the resources available. 

Barrowes explained Metro’s estimate comes from inmates who self-reported or told officers they were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless while incarcerated. 

Lt. Danielle Davis with the City of Las Vegas noted the city jail has problems collecting data, but is working to update outdated technology systems to get a more accurate depiction.

In a previous interview, the city estimated about one in five inmates booked are homeless. The data provided at the meeting showed that of the 33,338 inmates booked in Las Vegas’ jail, 5,225, a little less than one in seven, were homeless. 

Of the 74,910 booked into CCDC, 4,634 were reported as homeless.

Neither jurisdiction provides a break-down of the types of crimes that were associated with homeless incarceration, such as if they were low-level offenses like obstructive use of a sidewalk or possession of a sidewalk

Questions about homeless-related incarceration have come up as the City of Las Vegas has passed two ordinances that ban sleeping on sidewalks, which critics argue criminalizes homelessness and poverty, results in higher incarceration and overall makes it harder to exit homelessness.

The committee didn’t discuss either ordinance or any foreseeable impact on its overarching goal of reducing homelessness. 

Both law enforcement agencies highlighted some of the steps they have taken to address the homeless population. 

The Clark County Detention Center offers a resource fair within the detention center to connect inmates who identify with homelessness with community agencies for housing assistance or to access social services.

Last year, 340 inmates attended the program. Many of them were repeat offenders.

“The average person who attended had an average of 10 arrests in their lifetime,” Barrowes said.

Only 66 program participants have since reoffended, which is a 19 percent recidivism rate.

“Our biggest weakness right now is we need to have not just a resource fair, but we need to have a person or persons working full time to coordinate with these resources that we already have a working relationship with,” Barrowes said. “So we don’t just send someone out the door with information, but if someone wants to go to a shelter we can take them to a shelter. We do this to some degree. We just need additional resources to be better at it.”

The City of Las Vegas enlisted NaphCare, a privately contracted company that provides health care in correctional facilities, 

“NaphCare provides all medical care for all inmates,” Davis told the group. “For our mental health assessment, our substance abuse, a discharge planner is hired through NaphCare. Anything that pertains to medical or psychological, NaphCare takes care of.”

According to Davis, that includes a licensed clinical social worker. However, in a previous interview, a spokeswoman with NaphCare said the company offers “discharge planning related to medical needs for patients in the jail, not ‘case management’ as related to social work.”

The discharge planner works to set up case management and referrals to medical or mental health agencies prior to an inmate’s release. The planner also helps inmates leaving get necessary prescriptions, and helps uninsured inmates fill out needed paperwork and figure out what clinics they can go to for services.

Both agencies said they are working to reduce recidivism rates among the homeless population. Davis and Battowes agreed achieving this goal would require more funding to hire full-time case managers within the jail that would help with specific needs or to follow up after release. 

While Davis said the jail has previously provided inmates leaving the jail transportation to the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center or treatment facilities, it’s not as consistent as it needs to be. 

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Michael Lyle
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.