A man stands at the center of a surrounding circle of people. To his left, police officers. To his right, shopping center security. Behind, business shop owners. He’s trapped, he’s anxious, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get out of this situation. Those around him notice that he’s muttering to no one in particular.
While everyone waits to figure out what the next move is, another man walks up to the tense situation. He’s just stepped out of a large SUV and is wearing a tailored suit. He calmly and sternly states, “This guy is coming with me to get some help,” and all parties involved, including the man experiencing homelessness at the center, agree that this is what’s going to happen. The man gets inside the SUV and is taken to a service provider facility down the block. He immediately gets a shower, hot food, a bed for the night and any night thereafter, as well as a host of clinical services.
The man at the triangle center is one of dozens of people experiencing homelessness that stay in this particular residential area within central Las Vegas. The man in the suit is Dave Marlon, cofounder of the nonprofit Vegas Stronger. The shopping center is the chosen spot for their new initiative: Restoring Rancho.
Vegas Stronger aims to eradicate homelessness in Vegas through alternative policing methods. They start by addressing the major issues of the most vulnerable population: substance abuse and mental health. The services the man received are considered to be “true diversion” initiatives that provide an array of care to individuals that are taken off the street, instead of being cited or arrested. The nonprofit launched in October 2020, and their Restoring Rancho initiative has been running for only two months, but it already has support from the local City Council, business owners in the area, and the Metropolitan Police Department. Restoring Rancho starts with the local residents and business owners. Vegas Stronger asks them to do two simple things:
- Do not provide food or money to individuals experiencing homelessness. The reason is that they are concerned even something that seems small and helpful, like providing food or one dollar, gives people continued reasons not to accept and use the services available, which they believe can provide true help and a long-term plan to get them off of the streets.
- Do not call the police; instead call Vegas Stronger to come and intervene.
Once someone calls for help, an intervention is conducted. Once they have permission to bring someone in for care, they take them to Crossroads of Southern Nevada, one of several partners in the initiative. They see a nurse first, to check their vitals and assure they’re safe. Following a clean bill of health, they get showered, fresh clothes, a hot meal, and a clean bed. If during the medical assessment, they need to detox, that is provided for them along with coordination of substance use treatments.
“We do a full medical evaluation with the nurse, a psychiatric assessment with our psychiatrist, and a clinical assessment with our Master’s level licensed clinician,” says Marlon. “Finally we have them meet with a case manager for a review and that’s where we make sure they have proper ID, sign them up for Medicaid, and start looking into long-term housing and even job possibilities. They stay with us for as long as they need while we coordinate long-term housing.”
Marlon notes that he sees an improvement in their mood and demeanor after they are showered and fed.
“Many of these people, when we come out to meet them, put on a tough and scary act because that’s how they’ve learned to protect themselves,” Marlon says. “Once you have a conversation with many of them, I’ve personally learned that much of the time we’re not dealing with substance abuse or mental health specifically like we thought. It’s a trifecta for most, but the main diagnosis we’re dealing with is a learning disability, which is in a similar field but a different approach is needed.”
It seems like a clear-cut path from taking the individual experiencing homelessness off the street to providing them the services listed above. However, a look behind the curtain shows a puzzle of contracts and community partnerships that fit together semi-snugly.
Vegas Stronger is:
- contracted with the county to provide crisis stabilization and housing for a limited number of beds;
- licensed with the state to be a Medicare provider;
- contracted with insurance companies such as Anthem and United Healthcare to provide healthcare and substance abuse treatment for clients;
- contracted with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Law Enforcement Intervention for Mental Health and Addiction program (LIMA) to provide beds for clients and be a “metro drop off” location;
- partnered with the City Council in the area to provide literature to business owners and residents that recommends calling them for homeless interventions;
- contracted with the county who is contracted with other organizations to provide long-term housing.
If this sounds like a lot of hoops that have to be jumped through in order to provide basic services to people experiencing homelessness, it is. A limitation that Marlon details is that the process is extremely bureaucratic and inflexible. You have to know what contacts in what offices to speak to about contracts. You have to apply for and get the contract, possibly taking it away from another organization who may or may not be doing a decent job. You have to make sure all of your ducks are in a row, as they say, when applying.
Marlon notes that before Vegas Stronger could even begin helping people, they had to have a full staff on payroll, including psychiatric care, and a proper location. The average nonprofit that aims to help the community does not often have these resources to get launched, funded, and then provide services that will actually help people. Vegas Stronger’s total operating budget for their first year is estimated to be $1.35 million.
“I realize that part of the issue with this homeless epidemic is that there’s no one who is truly empowered and educated about the whole process,” Marlon says. “The government has loosely tried to address this before but it has been unsuccessful, as evidenced by the 15,000 homeless in the little city of Vegas. It’s very clear to anyone that we have not figured this out.”