No vacancy: Southern Nevada struggles to house the homeless during health crisis

Local goverments creating a facility to quarantine those living on the streets who are sick

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Construction began Tuesday morning on a new isolation and quarantine center capable of serving 350 homeless individuals at the Cashman Center downtown. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Clark County Government says for weeks it has actively sought to secure rooms at motels and hotels to house people experiencing homelessness during the health crisis. 

In an interview Tuesday, Human Services administrator Tim Burch said they’ve had trouble trying to “get individuals who are willing and able to turn that stock over and house the least of these.” He didn’t specify who the county has reached out to. 

“We’ve had deals shaping up and come close several times, but then haven’t been able to get people to sign on the dotted line,” Burch said. “Housing as health care is even more important right now.”

With thousands of people sleeping on the streets, leaving them even more vulnerable during a global health pandemic, pressure has been mounting for officials to act. 

In the meantime, the City of Las Vegas and Clark County began constructing a 350-bed facility to quarantine those experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID-19, come in contact with someone who has tested positive for or are currently exhibiting symptoms. It’s scheduled to open April 6. 

“This takes the pressure off our shelter providers,” Burch said. “Right now, a simple cough could screen them out of a shelter. So we want a place they can come and get the proper screening, testing, quarantine and isolation. If they are symptomatic and sick, an isolation facility for them.”

He added they are still trying to get the testing supplies they need, and will rely on the isolation center’s staff to make determinations on who can get tested depending on the case. 

Since the county and city are still in the process of setting up the facility, City Councilman Cedric Crear wasn’t sure how much staff and equipment will be required to run it. 

Burch added that they’ve been able to acquire enough personal protective equipment so far. 

A facility to isolate and quarantine medically fragile homeless isn’t the first project the county and city have had to collaborate on during the health crisis. 

Southern Nevada faced intense criticism after both governments announced Saturday that it was designating an emergency shelter at Cashman Field. The plan was implemented after Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada announced it would close it’s emergency night shelter, which sleeps about 500 men, when a client tested positive for the virus. 

People then tried to access the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which Crear said couldn’t handle the amount of people and maintain social distancing.

He added both governments “swiftly worked” to secure Cashman Field. “Covid-19 came out of left field,” he said. “I think everyone is trying to figure out the best route of how to deal with this. There was no game plan or blueprint in place on how to deal with Covid-19.”

While some thought the set-up would lead to people sleeping indoors, instead those experiencing homelessness slept outside, with many on the pavement. White lines were drawn to indicate social distancing. 

Local homeless providers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the special Rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations have called on cities and states to house those experiencing homelessness during the health crisis, many arguing it is a matter of life and death. 

“It’s not that simple,” Crear said. “These are private businesses that are owned and operated by private businesses and industry. The city can’t just come in and say that we’re going to put people there. There has to be a willingness. I know the county is working on something.”

Other cities and states, including California, have worked out deals with hotel owners to begin using hotel rooms as shelter.

Nevada Current reached out to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office Tuesday afternoon to ask what steps the governor is taking to talk with local businesses and hotel owners about renting out space to house homeless — an email was also sent Monday with a similar question. The office didn’t provide an answer either day.

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.