Resourceful in Vegas

The Valley has a reputation as a tough spot to be homeless. Are casinos the refuge of last resort?

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The restrooms were big and clean, and air conditioning was a nice reprieve from life on the streets. She would walk to the Sahara to use the bathroom, wash up and leave.

“I went in like everybody else,” says Jessica B. “Nobody said anything to me. If they gave me a look, I’d just give them a nasty [look] right back. It’s a public restroom. Look at [all] the people in there.”

Today she’s far from the Strip, sitting on a sidewalk near Main and Foremaster, where the Valley’s homeless shelters and services are clustered. She’s thin, with shoulder-length, unwashed hair; she wears jeans and a ski parka. Though the parka seems odd in late spring, she could easily be mistaken for a tourist were she in a crowded casino—a significant irony considering the efforts Las Vegas, like many destination cities, makes to keep the homeless out of sight of tourists. But homeless people slip into casinos all the time for any number of reasons—to get temporary shelter, to drink leftover drinks or to cash out leftover credits on slot machines, a practice known as silver mining.

In his new book, Homeless in Las Vegas (University of Nevada Press), sociologist Kurt Borchard says that because casinos play an unwitting role in the cycle of resource distribution, Las Vegas is a unique spot for the homeless. The smorgasbord of resources sometimes draws the homeless to Vegas, and it also sometimes impedes efforts to help them find permanent housing.

Although it’s difficult to say what portion of the Valley’s 11,000 or more homeless people use casinos for basic resources, Borchard’s book—his second on Vegas’ homeless population—renews focus on this entrenched micro-economy.

“It’s pretty prevalent. It’s something we deal with quite a bit,” says Rich Penksa, director of homeless services at HELP of Southern Nevada. “[Homeless people] will find the stray cocktail here and there, but for the most part they go to find the leftover slot credits and cash them out.”

Penksa says that’s problematic for activists who want to stop the chronically homeless from relying on casinos instead of agencies that will help them break addictions, look for work, and get permanent housing, like HELP. In the last five years, the nonprofit has secured permanent housing for about 800 people living on the Vegas streets. Many other clients, though, are still on the streets, stopping into casinos to silver mine, continuing a cycle of subsistence rather than empowerment.

“A lot of them are using that money to support their addictions,” Penska says. “They can make $25 to $50 day, sometimes $100.”

• • •

The open entryways to many Strip and downtown casinos are a part of the Vegas experience—tourists stroll in and out of casinos as they make their way down the sidewalk on the Strip or the Fremont Street Experience, moving from the public to the private repeatedly and without thought.

“It really blurs the line between public and private places—casinos are seen as public, like libraries or parks, even though they’re private,” says Borchard, a professor at the University of Nebraska who did his graduate work at UNLV. “Anyone can walk into a casino… [so] homeless people in Las Vegas have options that are not available elsewhere.”

Ironically, the homeless are often shooed away from some of the public places where they can find bathrooms. Notably, Frank Wright Plaza downtown and Huntridge Circle Park on Maryland near Charleston—the two parks whose homeless populations Borchard studied in the mid-2000s—have since been shut down by the city.

Circle Park, which had been renovated and featured a children’s playground, was closed in 2006. Neighbors had complained that the homeless spilled into their streets and yards, and then a fight between two homeless men ended in a fatal stabbing. Finally, activist Gail Sacco was cited for feeding the homeless in the park under an ordinance that made giving food to indigents illegal, and the park was closed. Sacco and the ACLU sued to change that law, but the park remained closed. Today it sits empty and blocked off. Neighbors continue to be concerned about the scattered homeless population in the area, and businesses have complained that people are going to the bathroom on their property.

“I can understand why businesses don’t want them using their bathrooms, or going behind their businesses,” Sacco says. “But if you close the bathrooms in the public park they’re going to go behind the businesses or in yards. Where else are they going to go? That’s one thing everybody absolutely needs—a place to go to the bathroom.”

Plans are being floated to reopen the park without opening the restrooms in an effort to discourage the homeless from congregating there, she says. But issues like this one are among the reasons Las Vegas has been ranked among the National Coalition for the Homeless’ “Meanest Cities.” Frank Wright Plaza, meanwhile, was closed by the city in 2008. The park was on the corner of Fourth and Bridger adjacent to Fremont casinos and City Hall. The homeless were given warning that it would be closed, and they scattered so that it could be turned into a construction staging lot for the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement—the Mob Museum—at the old post office building next door. Activists said it was another attempt to shoo away the homeless.

“When you tear parks down, homelessness doesn’t end,” Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the time.

• • •

If the homeless are removed from public spots, we might expect that they’d turn to social services. However, Las Vegas has long struggled with providing adequate services.

Many homeless people, Borchard says, don’t like the fact that most of the shelters are crowded in one area north of town, and they fear catching illnesses easily spread in such communal living situations. Plus, rules such as segregating the sexes and prohibitions against substance abusers in some shelters deter many who need help.

“Las Vegas is not known for having good social services, and if you don’t provide the services, they will find some other way,” says Allen Lichtenstein, an ACLU attorney. “So they go to the casinos … [and] our economic downturn has exacerbated the problem.”

Easy access to free resources seems a logical antidote to being shooed from public spots and to Las Vegas’ shortage of social services, creating a cycle Borchard, as well as local author Matthew O’Brien, have chronicled. In his 2007 book, Beneath the Neon (Huntington Press), O’Brien told the stories of people who live in the drainage tunnels under the city and consider silver mining their jobs—jobs Penska says they’ve become quite good at.

“Our more successful ones will play a role—they actually have costumes, they dress up like a certain kind of tourist and say, ‘I’m a tourist from Des Moines,’ and buddy up to tourists and get them to buy them drinks, in hopes of getting betting tickets.”

But the casinos—clearly considered private under the law—are loathe to kick someone out simply because he or she appears to be homeless. “You never know who someone is,” Penska says, “so their policy is to treat everyone like a whale.”

A security guard at a downtown casino says the homeless are a fixture on her job. “Oh yeah, they’re here every day. Depends on the weather, it depends on whether they need something. They always look for glasses that have some drink left over, and they’ll go around and mix all of the leftovers together and drink it. They take baths [in the restrooms] and naps.

“When they start bothering people, we have to kick them out,” says the guard, who didn’t want her name printed for fear of reprimand. “It’s a few times a day. You’ve got to watch yourself, though, because a lot of people who have a lot of money dress really funny. It depends. I usually ask, ‘Are you a hotel guest?’ You don’t just go up and say ‘Hey, you have to leave.’”

Jessica B. says she hasn’t been to the Strip in a long time. She’s involved with a new guy, and they camp in downtown’s homeless corridor most nights, receiving help from agencies and individuals who offer them money or food. But she wouldn’t hesitate to return to the casinos, she says.

“People think we’re not like everybody else, but we pretty much are just like everybody else,” she says. “We do what it takes to get by, you know? That’s the truth.”

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