Twisting, turning trek out of homelessness can be slow, filled with barriers

Diana Diaz at her apartment. Diaz struggled with homelessness for two years before transitioning back into housing. (Photo: Michael Lyle).

Diana Diaz experienced homeless for two years before she was approved for social service assistance and got back into stable housing.

During that time, she slept on the streets of downtown Las Vegas, bounced around at local homeless shelters and found sleeping space at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, all while filling out paperwork, applying for benefits like Social Security Disability, and seeking help from local service providers. 

“It takes being persistent, being hard-headed and having determination,” said Diaz, who is 51. “It’s not letting go of the idea to fight for your rights.”

An estimated 14,000 people were expected to experience homelessness at some point last year, nearly half of them for the first time, according to the 2019 Southern Nevada Homeless Census.

Last year’s data from the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which uses information collected from various homeless service providers in Southern Nevada, showed only 207 people were connected to permanent supportive housing, 896 were placed in transitional housing and 1,105 were rapidly rehoused. 

But those numbers don’t give a full picture of who all transitioned into some form of housing last year. For one, not all nonprofits helping the homeless population provide their numbers in the HMIS data. 

The county was unable to break down the HMIS numbers by homeless providers and social service agencies at the time of publication.

Dan Kulin, a spokesman with Clark County, said the funding allocated from the marijuana business licensing fees — the county earmarked that money to go toward homeless services — has helped expand community housing capacity by 17 percent, but a full report breaking down how those dollars were spent won’t be available until later in the year. 

Of the numbers the county provided, 93 people who were permanently housed are still involved in some sort of case management. Another 448 who were placed in transitional housing and 878 who were rapidly rehoused also get ongoing services from providers to ensure ongoing success.

And still, those numbers don’t answer the question: what does it take to exit homelessness? 

Transitioning from homelessness into stable housing isn’t a straight line. It’s more like a game of Chutes and Ladders. A misstep or obstacle can send a person falling back several steps or worse, spiraling all the way back to the start again. 

“There are so many reasons why a person becomes homeless and because of that there are so many ways for them to get housed,” said Shalimar Cabrera, the executive director of U.S. Vets. Las Vegas. “It’s not the same for everyone, and it may not be quick.”

Homeless problem is a housing problem

Top issues cited in the 2019 Southern Nevada Homeless Census as barriers those experiencing homelessness face when seeking housing stability included a lack of employment or income, inability to afford rent or move in costs, and simply a lack of available, affordable housing.

Experts note Nevada is still struggling with the basics that contribute to people becoming homeless in the first place, such as low wages in precarious jobs.

In the 2019 homeless census survey, less than 10 percent cited having either full-time, part-time employment or seasonal work.  

The current minimum wage is $8.25 and won’t reach $12 until 2024. The Nevada Housing Coalition notes people would have to work 73 hours to afford rent.

“Increased housing costs and higher rents aren’t proportional with the minimum wage or people with fixed income,” Cabrera said. 

Diaz’s recent experience as homeless, her second in the last decade, stemmed from a combination of a flighty housing market and her minimum wage job at McDonald’s. 

Since 2010, she had lived in a string of an apartments near Eastern and Fremont usually paying around $400 a week. In 2016, housing started to become less stable as the property she stayed at changed owners and rents began increasing. 

When a nasty fall in 2017 left her disabled and needing a walker, McDonald’s let her go. For the first time, she was unable to pay rent. 

She said she reached out to various agencies including Clark County Social Service to try to get rental assistance while she began what would become a lengthy, years-long process of obtaining disability benefits. 

No help came, and Diaz was evicted in September 2017 for failure to pay rent. 

At first, Diaz stayed at various shelters, but eventually began sleeping on the streets of downtown Las Vegas.

Around September 2018, the Life is Beautiful festival was setting up, and Diaz said she was asked by workers to leave the area. She refused, but construction-related chaos drove her away.

Diana Diaz rallies in front of City Hall along with other groups speaking out against a proposed ordinance they say criminalizes homelessness. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Later that fall she started sleeping at the Courtyard, where she stayed for the next 10 months. Because she is disabled, she was able to secure a mat each night before the Courtyard ran out.

After two years of navigating the social services bureaucracy she finally qualified for Social Security disability income.

An agency at the Courtyard paid for her to stay at a Siegel Suites, and from there Diaz was able to save up her benefit money to meet the deposit and get into an apartment. 

Diaz currently pays $600 a month from the nearly $1,000 disabilities check she gets. “(The government) takes nearly half my check out because of student loans I defaulted on,” she said. 

Got ID?

Diaz’s path required her waiting for Social Security Disability benefits. 

However, Brittany Corder, the service director at the Care Complex, said for a lot of her clients  getting assistance, finding employment and obtaining housing starts at an even more basic step: getting a driver’s license and a birth certificate.

Without them, Corder said, people can’t receive benefits like Social Security or Social Security Disability Income, nor can they apply for jobs, or rent apartments. 

“You might be able to go to the DMV and get a new ID, but you have to have two proofs of identification,” Cabrera added. “You’re going in circles. You have to get this piece to get that piece.”

It can cost between $20 to $50 for a birth certificate and more than $30 for IDs.

The Care Complex, one of the nonprofits Southern Nevada and its local governments rely on to provide services within the Homeless Corridor, received 324 birth certificate requests and 374 ID requests in the last six months. Because of little funding, it was only able to help 65 applicants get birth certificates and 59 get identification. The rest tried their luck at other places. The Courtyard, which is next door, also helps people get identification. 

Many people still living on the streets could easily lose these documents, whether during street and encampment cleanings that toss stuff, or while getting arrested and forced to abandon belongings, or just the through the daily hazards of being transient. 

“Some people are losing their IDs weekly,” Corder said. 

While some, like Diaz, are eventually able to pay rent thanks to Social Security Disability income, others are stuck trying to get into housing while working low-wage jobs –provided they’ve get proper documents. 

For many clients searching and interviewing for jobs, Corder said transportation is another obstacle.

“You walk 12 miles for an interview, don’t get the job and then walk 12 miles back” Corder said. “You’re missing your whole day. You’re missing the food that’s offered (in the homeless corridor) you’re missing the shelters at the end of the night. It is so much easier to just give up.”

Many of the clients who do work, Corder added, don’t have stable scheduling, meaning their shifts can change week to week. For swing shift workers who are homeless, the question becomes where to sleep during the daytime hours, since Southern Nevada doesn’t offer shelter beds during that time. 

“A lot of people will get on a bus and ride as long as they can and try to sleep on the bus,” Corder said. “There are no options so people are getting creative. They are fighting for sleep during the day and then going to work at night. No one is addressing this issue. Part of it comes down to this stereotype that the homeless are lazy or addicted. People don’t see there is this big population that is working.”

Some clients have been successful. As of January, the Care Complex is working with 78 clients, 68 which are employed and 10 who are seeking employment. 

High rent, low rental stability

Apartment security deposits and fees associated with moving in are a huge barrier for people trying to escape homelessness in Southern Nevada. 

Care Complex helps clients with their apartment deposits. 

But there are still other obstacles, Cabrera noted, that includes clients being turned away from housing because of past evictions, landlords denying applicants with criminal histories, people lacking consistent rental history, properties turning away renters with pets, or discrimination from landlords. 

People with criminal histories, she said, might also have to go through a lengthy record sealing process before they can get housing — another reason why homeless advocates opposed multiple city ordinances they say would potentially criminalize the homeless.

There is also a difference between finding stable housing and becoming stable.

Corder said in the last six months, the organization was able to help 45 clients with housing. Of that, three people are no longer in housing. Corder said loss of income, both from losing a job to misplacing a paycheck, have resulted in evictions. 

Even for clients who are in housing, Corder said many of them are hyper-aware of finances and worried about experiencing homelessness again. 

Though Diaz is housed, she fears with rising rents she could eventually return to the streets. 

“I worry about this 24/7,” she said. “Rent keeps rising. You’re supposed to only pay a third of what you make on rent. Nobody is paying that.”

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.