HHS secretary hears report on Southern Nevada homelessness from nonprofit

By: - April 21, 2022 6:00 am

Fuilala Riley, the CEO for HELP of Southern Nevada, speaks with Rep. Susie Lee and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

The night before the state shutdown in 2020 to prevent the potential onslaught of Covid cases, HELP of Southern Nevada was only serving about 50 families. 

Fuilala Riley, the CEO of the nonprofit that provides homeless and housing assistance, explained Tuesday to Rep. Susie Lee and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that the populations they serve are changing and more resources are needed to keep up. 

“Last week, we had 400. These are families intact with both parents involved,” she said. “They show up at HELP’s door steps in vehicles they live in. The need has grown so much. It’s also traumatizing for children because all of a sudden everything they own is in one vehicle.” 

Lee and Becerra met with Riley, the HELP of Southern Nevada homeless response team and clients who’ve previously experienced homelessness to hear about the challenges they face when housing people and connecting them to mental health services. 

HELP, like many nonprofits and service providers, has relied on federal funds provided by the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan to help with rental assistance or supplement other areas, Riley said.

Whether it’s providing more federal funding, creating more housing or reforming the mental health system, those at the roundtable had suggestions on more that could be done

The lack of housing, they said, prevents the nonprofit from helping people exit homelessness.

“If we came up with 300 units tomorrow, we could fill them,” Riley said. “That’s just HELP of Southern Nevada.”

She said there are about 5,000 people on the community queue in Southern Nevada who have received a housing assessment and are waiting for placement. 

Pres. Joe Biden’s proposal to invest nearly $2 trillion in social spending and climate policy, known as Build Back Better, would have made significant investments in housing and mental health services. 

Among the numerous proposals included in the bill, which has been stalled in the Senate since December, the legislation sought $322 billion for housing, which included $90 billion in rental assistance expansion, $80 billion to preserve public housing and $37 billion to invest into the National Housing Trust Fund, which could build 330,000 affordable homes for those with the lowest incomes. 

“We are dealing with a Senate that won’t move a bill when it comes to trying to support these types of services,” Lee said in an interview. “In our state, we need to look at what we did with the American Rescue Plan. We just announced the Home Means Nevada initiative, which is $500 million. But we are filling gaps. A small gap became a crevice.”

Nevada recently approved $250 million of ARPA funds to address the affordable housing shortage, half of the planned $500 million pledged by Gov. Steve Sisolak to help build multi-family housing developments, preserve existing affordable housing, increase home ownership and aid with land acquisition. 

Congressional Democrats and White House now hope to move on portions of the Build Back Better agenda in separate pieces of legislation.

“The Build Back Better bill unfortunately was an imperfect vehicle,” Lee said. “You’re trying to pass major structural change in this country on a budget bill because we have a Senate where we can’t get 10 (Republican) votes in the Senate to support affordable housing and climate change and bring down the cost of prescription drugs. None of these to me is purely partisan.” 

While clients are waiting for beds or housing units, HELP’s staff told Lee and Becerra they still provide case management while people are living on the streets and can help people obtain medication to treat mental health issues.  

However, medication can get stolen or lost when encampments are swept away by local governments and law enforcement. 

Lou Lacey, the director for the homeless response team, said when a person who sought treatment loses their medication it “kind of breaks their spirit and what happens is people start to give up hope.”

“The worst part of that is when someone gives up hope what they’ll do is say, ‘I like being homeless and I wanna be out here.’ No they don’t,” he said. “They are too traumatized and damaged to say, ‘this has literally broken my spirit and I wanna do something to change.’ But we don’t have the houses to put them in. We don’t have the facilities to put them in. So they languish in the streets suffering more and more. That’s the hardest part about this job.” 

One area the federal government could help, Riley said, is to rethink the restrictions such as income guidelines attached to grants. 

She added that is especially important as rising inflation drives up things like the cost of food, which means more people are struggling and might require assistance. 

Yet, they still might make too much to qualify for certain programs because of federal guidelines. 

“I’m sorry you’re not wearing gray pants, a blue shirt and a baseball cap that is prescribed in this funding source,” she said. “That’s how prescriptive our funding sources are and we would love help to loosen some of that up.”

Becerra said fixing guidelines is “more difficult than it sounds.”

“Once you start loosening that, if there is a performance review and the congresswoman and her colleagues call us up for an oversight and do a review on how we used the money and we can’t report on how money was used, we lose money,” he said. 

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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.

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