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The Homeless-Campus Concept Catches On

As homelessness rises nationwide, Las Vegas is taking a gamble on a new way of helping the homeless. But some say it's money that could be better spent.

(Flickr/Paul Sableman)
On a single night in January last year, almost 6,500 people were counted as homeless in Clark County, Nev., and about 67 percent of them were sleeping on the street instead of in a shelter -- a four-year high. The county isn't just known as the home of Sin City. It also has one of the top 10 largest homeless populations in the country.

That's what has driven Las Vegas to take a gamble on a new way of helping the homeless. 

In the past year, the city allocated about $5.9 million to demolish old buildings and replace them with a 4.5-acre campus for homeless people to escape the streets and get help. It officially opened this month, and when sleeping accomodations are added in May, it will be one of the first campuses of its kind in the country.  

During the day, nonprofits at the site help people find housing and jobs, sign up for public benefits and access mental health and addiction treatment services. There are temporary toilets, handwashing stations and portable showers. The campus is scheduled to get sleeping mats, shaded structures and storage for people's belongings in May. In the meantime, people return to the streets at night.

"This is really a triage center for homeless individuals who won't or can't go into traditional shelters," says Kathi Thomas-Gibson, who manages the city's Office of Community Services. "At our mainstream shelters, you have to be sober. At our courtyard, you don't. You come as you are and plug into the services you need to get to the next step."

The project is a departure from the conventional wisdom that the best way to end homelessness is by expanding the supply of affordable housing. Las Vegas officials say they had no choice.

"It might take 18-24 months to bring an affordable housing development online, and we need interventions that are here and now," says Thomas-Gibson.

Las Vegas is drawing inspiration from Haven for Hope, a homeless campus in San Antonio, Texas, that has an outdoor courtyard as well as dorms. Haven for Hope, however, places certain conditions -- such as sobriety -- on sleeping indoors.

For some, the concept brings homeless encampments -- or so-called "tent cities" -- to mind. Some places have allowed tent cities to pop up on vacant parcels of land even though the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has advised against it. 

Legal encampments end up costing cities money because public agencies are responsible for maintaining the health and safety of people living there -- money that might otherwise go to permanent housing, the Council argued in 2015.

But at a time when homelessness is on the rise for the first time since the recession, some homeless advocates now say tent cities may be a necessary evil until housing becomes available.

"For a long time, we took the position that city-run legalized encampments was admitting defeat," says Eric Tars, a senior attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which published new principles about encampments in December. "Now we've come to a more nuanced position."

"I don't think anybody should be comfortable with the existence of encampments in what remains the wealthiest country in the world," he says. But if encampments have the services needed to get people housed, "there can be a role for it," he says.

Thomas-Gibson, however, objects to calling the campus in Las Vegas a tent city.

"It's a homeless resource center. People are not going to be pitching tents and bringing all their shopping carts," she says. "And they're not coming to stay forever. They're coming to get connected for whichever service makes sense for each individual's situation."

At the moment, the city is funding the project by itself, but officials are trying to convince neighboring governments and the business community to shoulder some of the costs. (San Antonio's campus relies heavily on funding from private sources.) Thomas-Gibson says outside funders need help understanding how the campus works.

"It's a new concept," she says. "Something like this has not been done in Southern Nevada."

Still, not everyone is convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.

"I think the danger is that you spend so much money on a project that basically maintains people in homelessness and isn't really focused on ending homelessness," says Kirsten Anderson from the Southern Legal Counsel, which provides legal aid to low-income people and has been critical of a similar project in Pinellas County, Fla., that turned a vacant jail into a homeless shelter with an outdoor courtyard where drunk tenants sleep.

"Communities that I think are doing a really good job are investing money in housing and not just building another homeless shelter or homeless service center," she says.

But Thomas-Gibson sees it differently. Expanding the supply of affordable housing takes time and isn't a realistic option for some of the homeless in Las Vegas, she says. People with a severe mental illness, for example, may need treatment before they're in the right state of mind to sign a lease.

"There are a number of causes for homelessness, so we need a number of solutions," she says. "We don't subscribe to a magic bullet theory. There's no single answer. There's lots of answers."

*CORRECTION: A previous version of the story incorrectly said San Antonio's Haven for Hope campus is funded entirely with private dollars. Private donations covered a majority of its construction costs, but current funding comes from a mix of private and public sources. 

This appears in the Human Services newsletter. Click to subscribe.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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