As regional homelessness policy stresses housing, city spends more on Courtyard

Sharper policy focus could mean ‘no need for the Courtyard,’ advocate says

People are shown in social-distancing boxes at a temporary homeless shelter set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center on March 30, 2020. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A recent presentation to a regional working group assessing homeless funding shortfalls and resource gaps showed Southern Nevada needs an additional $31 million this year to rapidly rehouse people who are currently experiencing homelessness. 

Though the data is new, the information reaffirms an ongoing conversation around the regional shortcomings toward funding homelessness.

For years now, Kevin Schiller, the assistant county manager for Clark County, said the Southern Nevada Continuum of Care, which includes local governments, nonprofits and businesses, have worked on how to find the money to fill these gaps and ultimately decrease the homeless population.

“From a regional perspective how do we combine all our resources into a housing-first model,” he said. “How do we collectively fund the resources needed for that housing component?”

A day before the working group discussed funding gaps in the ability to rehouse people, the City of Las Vegas approved $23 million to expand its open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

In an email, Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the Director of Community Services with the City of Las Vegas said it isn’t an expansion but using new market tax credits “to fully fund the already existing plans for the Courtyard.” 

“The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars that are going into the Courtyard are capital dollars,” she said. “They can only be used to build things. In addition, the funds generated by bonding CDBG dollars can only be used for the project described during the bonding process, in this case the Courtyard. Investors have to know what the city is doing and what we committed to do with the proceeds. Those funds are not available for a COVID-19 response and any waivers granted by HUD do not apply to those dollars. Special waivers are related only to coronavirus relief fund dollars, and not other federal dollars provided under the CDBG program.”

The Courtyard offers nightly sleeping mats, storage facilities and bus tickets out of town along with allowing outside providers to come in to help clients start Social Security paperwork, begin housing assessments or access mobile showers on certain days.

Some homeless advocates have viewed the Courtyard as counterintuitive to the overall mission of the region.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see the City of Las Vegas spend massive amounts of public dollars on the Courtyard without demonstrating any evidence that the services they are providing are helping people to escape homelessness and gain stable housing,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance.

“The city should use our scarce public dollars on scaling up the type of services that are successful — affordable housing coupled with supportive services. If the city, in regional partnership with the other jurisdictions, invested more wisely in evidenced-based housing models for the homeless there will be no need for the Courtyard.”

Schiller wouldn’t comment on the Courtyard or the council directing funding toward the project. He reiterated the regional approach’s main focus is on rehousing people rather than creating more temporary accommodations.

“Our funding focus is on transitional and supportive housing where you don’t go in and out on the same day but where you spend the night and you stay,” he said. 

Thomas-Gibson said it is part of the City’s action plan and outside the Continuum of Care process.

“While the city is very active in the regional Continuum Of Care process, the Courtyard is not being planned, constructed, nor operated under the auspices of the COC,” she said. “None of the federal dollars coming into southern Nevada through the COC are being utilized in the Courtyard construction or operations. Furthermore none of the coronavirus dollars received by the city or any other entity are being utilized to build the Courtyard.” 

The importance of moving people off the streets has been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Katie Peterson, a consultant helping the regional group on homeless data, said there are two main goals right now: mitigate the spread of the virus and rehouse as many people as quickly.

“Both of these goals can be accomplished by rehousing our households experiencing homelessness,” she told the group Thursday. “The (United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) has strongly suggested that if a Continuum of Care is not working toward either of these two goals, then that work should be put on hold.”

Thomas-Gibson said the Courtyard is committed to rehousing people.

“In response to Covid-19, the city does regular health screenings each night and encourages social distancing. To date we have distributed 12,000 face coverings at the Courtyard,” she said.  

But she countered that HUD doesn’t expect long-term projects like the Courtyard, which won’t be fully completed for two years, need to be abandoned.

She also pointed to a recent visit from HUD officials and members from the U.S. The Interagency Council on Homelessness.

“Both representatives concurred that the work the city is doing is appropriate and a necessary part of addressing homelessness,” she said.

COVID concerns and CARES cash

The regional working group is legislatively mandated through Assembly Bill 73, legislation that 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.

The group is expected to present a report to lawmakers prior to the 2021 session that details current funding revenue streams and gaps in services as well as proposed funding solutions and fixes.

Part of the data presented Thursday showed the existing costs of some interventions, like outreach programs, emergency shelter and transitional housing, are above or comparable to the need.

The existing resources for outreach is $2.8 million, matching the budgeted need at $2.8 million. The total cost of existing transitional housing programs is $1.3 million while the funding for transitional housing is $2.5 million.

But the current amount of funding for Southern Nevada’s rapid rehousing plans is $22 million, when it needs to be $53 million.

In addition to a need for more rapid rehousing funding, the report estimated a need for an additional $19 million for “system capacity goals,” which includes providing landlord incentives for renting and increasing the overall housing stock. The current allocation is $1.6 million. 

Susan Starrett, who provides federal technical assistance for the working group, said recent coronavirus relief funding that provided $28 million for emergency solutions grants could essentially eliminate the gap in rapid rehousing funding. 

Because of that funding, Starrett said there were enough resources to rehouse people currently on the streets, at least based on a homeless snapshot from May Homeless Management Information System data that showed 2,741 were experiencing homelessness. Of those, 1076 were unsheltered, 972 had access to shelters, 550 are in transitional housing and 143 are in non-congregate shelter, which are accommodations added during the Covid crisis.

“Those (CARES Act) resources have to be allocated accordingly and your system has to speed up housing placements and system capacity goals need to be implemented,” Starrett said.

Schiller said it’s more complicated than that, and CARES Act money has been used to make sure more people don’t enter into homelessness during the pandemic. 

“Do we have the resources to rehouse? If every penny of those CARES funds went only into rehousing people, the answer might possibly be yes,” he said. “However, we are preventing people from going into homelessness by doing rental assistance, utility assistance and resource management.”

That doesn’t mean the county hasn’t been able to increase the number of people housed, he added.

“Pre-covid, we had increased our placement resources by 20 percent by using our marijuana dollars,” he said. 

In 2019, the County approved roughly $12 million in marijuana business license fee revenue for homeless services. Money has been allocated to expand homeless youth beds, house families experiencing homelessness and those who are medically fragile. 

With the CARES funding, Schiller said the County has been “increasing the stock of beds” to house more people.

“So we are taking individuals and instead of having them go to shelters we are master leasing hotel rooms,” he said. 

Getting to the heart of the regional working group, the presentation looked at how much it would cost to serve clients experiencing homelessness in the long term. 

Southern Nevada invests about $70 million annually into homeless services according to the data shown to the group. But if the region served and rehoused an estimated 14,600 people a year it would need $305 million. 

That number would fluctuate depending on the number of people entering and exiting homelessness each year.

The $305 million includes expanding capacity such as adding 3,886 additional rapid rehousing beds and 868 transitional housing beds.

The model also takes into account the creation and funding of other needed services such as extended respite care or “shallow subsidies,” which are resources like case management or housing assistance once a person enters permanent supportive housing.

The group is also planning to submit recommendations on potential funding sources to the Legislature but didn’t specify what those ideas would include at Thursday’s meeting.

Clark County city manager Yolanda King requested a list describing what other cities have done to fund homeless services.

Some ideas briefly discussed based on what other cities have done included a sales tax on food and beverage to go into a homeless fund, something the city of Miami implemented. 

Chicago also imposes a 4.5 percent hotel accommodations tax on vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts and other hotel accommodations.

Schiller said the search for solutions in Southern Nevada will be more informed when the working group compiles more details about homeless services funding for the group’s August meeting.

“As your inflow number keeps going down, as your rehousing numbers keep going up, as your returns to homelessness keeps decreasing, as you length of time of people experiencing homelessness keeps decreasing, then the amount of resources that you will need will decrease,” Starrett said. “That $304 million number will decrease.”

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.