This post is part of Unsheltered, an Alliance blog series exploring the crisis of unsheltered homelessness in the United States. You can catch up on the whole series here.
There are tunnels running under the streets of Las Vegas. They were built to collect rainwater during the monsoon season so that the casinos don’t flood. But for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, the tunnels have taken on another purpose. Because they are significantly cooler than the desert temperature above ground, the tunnels host small encampments of people who cannot or will not access emergency shelter.
Many communities nationwide have seen increases in unsheltered homelessness in the past few years, and Nevada is feeling the crisis more than most. Fortunately, the 2018 Point-In-Time count of unsheltered homelessness in Las Vegas showed an encouraging decrease — but the unsheltered living in tunnels are a stark reminder of the scope of this challenge.
To get a better sense of life in Nevada’s tunnel encampments, watch this profile from The Guardian’s Outside in America reporting project:
The Alliance’s Center for Capacity Building recently visited Southern Nevada to conduct a training on running low-barrier emergency shelter. While in Las Vegas, we went into the tunnels with the outreach team from HELP of Southern Nevada and had the privilege of witnessing them immediately provide housing for a man who had been living on the streets for years, and in the tunnels for months.
This story is both radical and simple: people experiencing unsheltered homelessness can be housed…now!
Outreach teams are critical to ending unsheltered homelessness. Not only do they spend each day providing immediate life-saving services like bottled water, dry socks, or clean needles, these same teams have a critical role in connecting people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to housing directly from the streets.
We asked Kelly Robson, Chief Social Services Officer for HELP of Southern Nevada about their work:
The Alliance: Moving someone from a tunnel into housing… does that really happen regularly?! What’s the backstory on someone moving from the streets into housing?
HELP: HELP’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCIT) use iPads to track client services in real time. We document every service provided to each client using the city’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). We also map each encampment and geolocate a client’s exact location in their profile in HMIS. This allows us to drag and drop clients to a new location if they relocate camps. By staying in touch with clients and recording every service offered, we can find them when a housing slot opens up.
Our outreach teams conduct housing assessments directly in the field — so we can reach clients who would never come into the office to be assessed. We work closely with “community matchers” to understand which clients are most likely to be eligible for housing on the spot. When our outreach staff come into contact with a client and complete the housing assessment, they know if the client scored in the range to be housed immediately. For clients who aren’t eligible for housing right away, our teams work to connect them with shelter, emergency lodging, and services.
What are the most important skills for a street outreach worker to have?
Compassion, and empathy — an ability to put yourself in the client’s shoes and treat them the way you would want to be treated. Effective outreach workers also have a good sense of boundaries, life experience, integrity, and a knowledge of community resources.
What is the biggest misconception people have about unsheltered homelessness?
Many people incorrectly assume that anyone living unsheltered has chosen to be homeless and doesn’t want to live by society’s rules. And the public often assumes that people living outside or in encampments are all mentally ill or struggling with substance abuse. From our work in the field, we know this isn’t true.
Where are you seeing the greatest progress when it comes to unsheltered homelessness?
We are seeing great progress with the implementation of our Linkages, Intervention, Navigation, Knowledge (LINK) team. LINK finds the most vulnerable clients living in places not meant for human habitation. When they find those clients, they are placed directly into bridge housing and assisted with getting their documents ready in time for a placement into permanent supportive housing. The work of the LINK team, along with the daily outreach of MCIT, is proving to be successful.
How can cities retool and equip their street outreach teams to help end unsheltered homelessness?
Outreach teams need a full array of services to offer clients. The use of technology in the field is also extremely valuable. Outreach teams should have close contacts at shelters in order to prioritize clients who are willing to enter — we need to jump at the opportunity for shelter when clients are ready. Bus passes, hygiene, sunscreen, water, food, and other essentials are all valuable tools to engage with the population and develop trust and rapport.
This must be tremendously difficult work. How do you take care of yourselves and each other?
This work can take a toll on you. We take care of each other by listening when some has had a bad day and utilizing the employee assistance program when needed. We also work four ten-hour days and have three days off each week to de-stress and regroup before going back out. We encourage all our staff to have a healthy work/life balance and to take a break when they need one.