After hiatus, Project Homeless Connect returns to link people with services
Touro University provided free health care screenings for people attending Project Homeless Connect. (Photo: Mona Shield Payne)
Panic set in when David and Jasmine Dekorte’s landlord told them this week that after two years of renting that their lease wouldn’t be renewed, leaving the family, which includes a 4 year old, an 18 month old and a five month old, fearing they could face homelessness.
Since the start of the pandemic, they have both experienced job loss and health issues, including Covid, but squeaked by thanks to loved ones helping to pay rent.
“Our lease expires Dec. 17,” Jasmine Dekorte said. “It’s like a clock counting down. When it hits zero, what are we going to do?”
They immediately started calling apartment complexes to find available units, but Southern Nevada’s housing stock has declined in the last 18 months.
“We called place after place after place,” she said. “They will have an apartment but as soon as we call they’ll say, ‘oh, it was just rented out’ or ‘oh, you guys don’t meet the qualifications for rent,’ or ‘oh, you don’t make enough.’ What else are we supposed to do?”
After reaching out to Clark County, they were told about Project Homeless Connect, which brings together services providers and nonprofits to provide on-the-spot help to address issues like housing and rental burdens or food insecurity.
The family was connected with a nonprofit, Chicanos por la Causa, one of the organizations helping with housing assessments, that offered not only to help in their search but to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent.
“I feel relieved, and that better things are coming,” David said. “I feel we are going to be OK again.”
After a year hiatus last year due to the pandemic, Project Homeless Connect returned Wednesday to offer those experiencing and at risk of homelessness with housing assistance, legal consultation, health screenings, vaccinations, clothes, mental health resources, access to showers, and a warm meal.
In the first year back, Nathaniel Waugh, the interim executive director for Nevada Homeless Alliance, one of the groups organizing the event, said he expected around 1,500 people would be helped.
“We aren’t just serving people who are experiencing homelessness but the folks who are on the verge of homelessess,” he said. “Hopefully, we are able to connect them to resources and prevent them from entering that system in the first place.”
The event acts as an entry point for people whether they need a health screening and vaccine or to start the process to receive a housing voucher. In many cases, perhaps both.
Waugh said it was important to bring the event back after a year off, especially considering the housing, medical and economic needs of the community.
Over the past few years, Waugh said, Southern Nevada began to see a decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The 2021 homeless Southern Nevada Point in Time Count showed 5,083 people experiencing homelessness during the count. An estimated 12,030 will experience homelessness at some point during 2021 the year, down from the 13,076 that had been estimate in 2020.
Michele Fuller-Hallauer, Clark County social service manager, said Covid further highlighted “the fact something we in homeless services have been saying for a long time, that housing really is health care.”
The pandemic also created economic turmoil that exacerbated housing insecurity leading to homelessness.
“The economic impacts (caused by Covid) leads to evictions and that leads to homelessness or health issues that leads to more economic issues that exacerbates homelessness,” she said. “It’s a horrible spiral.”
Caught in that spiral, she noted, was “a different face on homelessness.”
“We are now seeing more families that are coming to us for assistance, and large families at that,” she said. “It’s really having an impact on homeless services systems.”
Families like the Dekortes came to the event worried about entering that spiral.
Jasmine’s first stint with homelessness was three years ago while living in Los Angeles with her then newborn prior to meeting David. The fear of re-entering homelessness loomed on her as she entered Project Homeless Connect.
“We were literally sleeping on people’s sofas,” she said. “It was something I don’t want to go back to because we pushed so hard to get out of that. Just to be put in the headspace where you think you might end up back on the streets is stressful. I knew we had to find something.”
David and Jasmine moved into their apartment in December 2019.
To prevent the potential spread of Covid, businesses shutdown in March 2020 meaning Jasmine, who worked for the store Marshalls, and David, who worked as a chef at Rainforest Cafe, both lost their jobs.
“We’ve been blessed enough to pay rent throughout the whole pandemic where we don’t owe anything,” David said. “My pastor back in Michigan actually paid rent for us.”
They have since found employment.
But they faced numerous issues regarding safety and security, including three brea in, they say their landlord wouldn’t address. They believe their complaints around inaction played a role in their lease not being renewed.
The news came as a shock.
“We were devastated and felt hopeless,” David said. “It got to a point where do we stay here or do we try to go to LA where she is from or back to Michigan where I have family? We really love Vegas though.”
Connecting with the nonprofit was the first step in their apartment search, but they feel more hopeful knowing they have support.
While there, they were also able to talk with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada about their landlord and if any legal avenues could be pursued.
Though the event offered housing assessments, an important step for identifying a person or family’s need, Fuller-Hallauer said “just because you have an assessment doesn’t mean you’re going to get immediately housed.”
“But we are doing the best that we can,” she added.
She added there is a partnership among “13 agencies to provide housing with wrap-around services and get people into housing.”
“But we need landlords to partner with us to rent to those clients, to enter into leases, so we can give them a leg up so they can get stable and move on with their lives.”
Recent estimates, she added, show there are about 7,000 available units in Southern Nevada.
“We have almost that many homeless folks at any given time,” Fuller-Hallauer said. “We don’t have stock so it’s really critical we have our landlords partner with us, especially during this time so we can get folks back into housing. The only way to solve homelessess is housing.”
When people are worried about where they are going to sleep that night or when they might get their next meal, Waugh said they “might not think about the toothache” or any other physical ailment.
“What we need to remember is with these vulnerable populations, we need to think about the hierarchy of needs and they’re going to seek out housing services, food and shelter before they think about health care,” said Dr. Amie Duford with Touro University. “But health care is just as necessary as those other valuable resources.”
Touro University, the Southern Nevada Health District and other health agencies were conducting medical screenings, providing acute health services, testing for HIV and Hepatitis C, administering vision and hearing exams and offering Covid and flu vaccines.
Untreated and underlying health issues that are neglected, “can sometimes lead to devastating effects,” she said. Pre-existing health issues can also make Covid all the more deadly.
Duford said Project Homeless Connect acts as a bridge to some health care gaps that may have occurred among those unhoused during the pandemic.
“We as health providers need to meet vulnerable individuals where they’re at and help them access those other resources they might need,” she said.
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