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Hunt to count homeless in Vegas looks for nighttime nooks

January 26, 2019

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Volunteers and workers counting the homeless in Las Vegas on a recent night filed beneath a railroad overpass without stopping, but William Kight paused to take a closer look.

Shining his flashlight into small caverns beneath the bridge deck, he spotted the corner of a green blanket.

Within moments, several other people tucked into cramped recesses were sitting up or rolling over in their sleeping bags or blankets and shielding their faces from the group’s lights.

Minutes later, all were counted.

“For single people, this is the safest place” to sleep, Kight, 48, said to one volunteer, adjusting his black rectangular glasses.

Kight’s knowledge of homelessness was hard-won. If this had been the January 2018 Southern Nevada Homeless Census instead of this year’s, he would have been one of those being tallied.

He’s now been off the streets for eight months and is working at the city of Las Vegas’ homeless courtyard.

“I have the pulse of the community,” Kight told the Las Vegas Review-Journal . “I know where they go to stay protected, and now it’s my time to give back.”

Kight was one of more than 300 volunteers scouring Clark County overnight Tuesday-to-Wednesday. A separate count of homeless youths occurred the following night.

All told, the groups covered 708 census areas, said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, county social service manager. She has been involved in the annual count since 2005.

The homeless census, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is crucial for the county to receive some federal aid. This year, the county received about $14 million from the federal government for services in the community, Fuller-Hallauer said.

Last year, the census counted 6,083 homeless people living inside Clark County shelters or on local streets, the county announced in July. The results of this year’s count won’t be known until spring.

Last year’s total was 400 fewer than in 2017, when Clark County ranked eighth in the U.S. for largest homeless population. Some decline was likely the result of a bookkeeping change instituted by the federal government, officials said.

The 2017 survey also found the percentage of homeless living without shelter in Clark County was higher than the U.S. average.

That led the county to consider new approaches to encourage people to come in from the heat and the cold.

One aspect of that rethink, Fuller-Hallauer said, was working with emergency shelters to train workers to become more collaborative on outreach efforts

“The county is really focused on using a housing-first approach,” she said.

Before setting out from Catholic Charities on Tuesday night, volunteers were briefed on census rules by team leader Juan Salinas, director of social services for the local Salvation Army.

Knocking on tents or disturbing the homeless isn’t allowed. Age estimates of people who are seen are important.

Salinas also counseled volunteers to be vigilant.

“We’re counting bodies,” he said. “You never know where we’re going to find them.”

A police cruiser followed as the group passed the Shade Tree emergency domestic violence shelter. The officers also were charged with surveying off-road areas to count any homeless people sleeping there.

Each multicolored tent clustered on Washington Avenue was counted as holding 1.21 people, per federal guidelines. Volunteers in neon jackets peered up raised berms along the roadway to count anyone sleeping on the relatively flat spaces there.

Kight tried to avoid walking on gravel. He said he still remembers how each noise sounded threatening when he slept on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Kight came to Las Vegas in 2015 after leaving his Maryland home and everything in it. He later determined that he suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

“I left with nothing but sandals, shorts and a T-shirt,” he recalled of his breakdown. “I had it once, and I’ve worked hard to get it all back.”

After being diagnosed, he went through a work program at Catholic Charities and stayed at the city’s homeless courtyard as it was beginning to operate. Then he was set up with housing by HELP of Southern Nevada and secured a job at the courtyard.

“Now, I pay taxes,” he said. “Instead of drawing off the city, now I’m giving back.”

After the first hour of its nightlong effort, Kight’s group had counted about 60 homeless people.

Outside a thrift shop on North Main Street, Kight checked a group of men sleeping alongside a line of shopping carts and baby strollers overflowing with belongings.

One man slept with his black suitcase tucked in his blanket. Another had a pair of red-and-white shoes stored neatly at the foot of his cardboard mat. A third was in a nearby parking lot, next to a trash bin and a beat-up truck.

For now, they were all safe and accounted for.

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Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com

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