Shit. I gotta go, she says. The bumblebees are coming. She hangs up.
She doesn’t want to be seen up there. Not by the bumblebees—the bicycle cops in black-and-yellow uniforms who patrol the pedestrian walkways on the Strip. She wants to be seen by the tourists. Well, want and need are two different things. She needs to be seen by the tourists. She needs to be seen as the sympathetic homeless character: someone down on her luck, with a good heart and hope for redemption, etc., a shill in the morality game. Please help. She needs to be seen in a way that makes them feel good about giving her money.
And then—for this act to work—she needs to disappear.
John Farrell, a caseworker with Nevada Health Centers, is driving the van. It’s early morning when we pull out of the Salvation Army on Owens Avenue near Main Street. We’re heading to a homeless camp near Russell Road and Interstate 15 to pick up two people, Ronda and Freddie, who need to visit the medical clinic. As we go, Farrell, a lean, wiry man with glasses and short hair under a cap, calls Ronda on her pre-paid cellphone to confirm their appointment.
There seem to be more homeless people out today. I’m sure it’s not true—they’re here all the time, but I’ve apparently perfected the skill of painting them into the landscape. But Farrell, who has more than 20 years of experience working with the homeless, is eyeballing his regulars along the way: They’re waking up downtown, pushing grocery carts near the new Smith Center, nestled under freeway overpasses. There are more than 9,000 homeless people in Las Vegas, a growing (though still small) number of whom panhandle on the Strip. Along with buskers and prostitution marketers, the homeless who work the Strip are prompting more Clark County Commission and law enforcement attention recently. But today, with Farrell, I’m reminded that they’re everywhere all the time, hidden mostly by suspension of disbelief.
We arrive at the big dirt lot where Ronda, Freddie and six or eight others live. It’s kitty-corner from a gas station I stop at all the time across the freeway from the Strip. In fact, it turns out that my gas station is where Ronda and Freddie get water and beer and tote it to their camp on a weekly basis, and yet I have never noticed their tent. It’s made with a discarded plastic tarp, tucked behind a berm on the vacant corner so that it’s virtually out of sight from of the intersection—but still well within the view of thousands of tourists from the windows of Mandalay Bay. A well-crafted illusion.
Freddie and Ronda hop in the van. He’s a middle-aged African-American man wearing dark sunglasses and a mid-length black coat; she’s a white woman with tan, thick skin and no front teeth. Her brown hair shows the tiniest bit of gray. She’s wearing jeans, running shoes and a gray sweatshirt.
Ronda’s the talker. She seems both older and younger than her 49 years. She’s streetwise and has a swagger, but she’s bubbly, laughs a lot, tells streaming stories. Last night while she was holding her sign on the pedestrian walkway above the Strip, trying to make some money begging (she boasts she’s made as much as a hundred bucks in nine hours up there), a man gave her two tickets to see the illusionist Criss Angel’s show. It’s starting right now in Luxor. Hurry up, the man told her, it’s your lucky day.
So Ronda yelled to Freddie, who was setting up for a night of panhandling just down the walkway, and the two scrambled through the crowd to Luxor. Ticketholders were already shuffling in. As they entered, they took in the magician’s glass-encased motorcycle collection—sleek, wicked machines covered in chrome, bikes named the Phantom and Suicide. One bike’s frame is made from human bones dipped in stainless steel, bones purchased from a human-research facility. Another bike is valued at $250,000.
“A quarter million dollars,” Freddie says. “For a motorcycle.”
He repeats it several times on our ride to the Nevada Health Centers Outreach clinic, which will provide care for anyone who does not have insurance, even those with no identification. This is a common situation among the homeless—people who are here, but not here; people who exist, but not in the records; people who move through the city invisibly—now with cheap, periodically working cellphones.
The clinic is tucked inside the Salvation Army campus, which is a block off of Main Street in the area known as the homeless corridor. You’d never know the clinic was here if you weren’t looking for it. Ronda is at the clinic for a follow-up on a couple of issues: sinus infection, menstrual problems.
Nevada Health Centers, a nonprofit, operates 30 medical and dental clinics in the state. One of them, this one, serves the homeless population. The clinic employs one doctor, one physician’s assistant, one licensed practical nurse, one office coordinator and two caseworkers, including Farrell. The clinic treats about 350 people a month.
In the five years it’s been here, the staff’s seen an increase in the numbers of homeless people seeking help, and a change in the kind of homeless people—more families now, more people who are new to the street. Still, the common health problems remain consistent: coughs and fevers, wounds, IV drug use, chronic conditions such as pulmonary disease and diabetes.
After 40 minutes, Ronda is called back to the examination room, where she gets her vitals checked. She sets down her paper bag on a table, but keeps an eye on it: It contains the form she needs to fill out and send to Utah to get her birth certificate, and the form to fill out and send to Texas to get a copy of her old ID. Each has a fee. It’s a shell game—to get an ID, you need a birth certificate. To get a birth certificate, you need an ID. And to get health care in most places, you have to prove you exist. On paper.
Before Ronda found this clinic—before Farrell found her in the field off of Russell Road when he was checking on the homeless who lived there—she tried, unsuccessfully, to go to University Medical Center for various ailments. Once, she got athlete’s foot from the showers in a shelter. It was so bad she couldn’t wear shoes. UMC wouldn’t take her without ID, she says, and it wasn’t until a policeman saw her red, bleeding feet and insisted that an emergency room let her in that she got care.
Another time, Ronda tells me, a stranger showed up at their camp. As she recalls, he was a drifter, and he must’ve gotten into a tangle with some guys at the camp after she went to sleep, because later when she got up, he was lying on the ground, face down, under a blanket, knifed.
“Someone said, ‘Call the paramedics,’ and then someone else said, ‘Call the coroner.’”
Their seats in the Criss Angel Believe Theater are in Section 103. The theater is grand; some people are dressed up. The face value of each ticket is $119.50. Ronda shows me the tickets, which she keeps in her small paper bag of important things.
Angel opens his show with a tribute to Houdini that he calls “the Enigma”: He locks himself in a crate, in some impossible situation, and manages to escape in quick seconds.
According to script, Angel invites a member of the audience to the stage. He’s created a giant shell game where the audience member, a teenage boy, tries to guess which huge cup a person, rather than a ball, is under—a familiar sleight-of-hand trick, the kind of thing street hustlers have done for years, but Angel uses cups large enough for people to hide in. He gives the boy a magic kit. The audience applauds.
He performs illusions in which he disappears, then reappears somewhere else. He makes his sexy assistant disappear and reappear, and one of his motorcycles, and birds—white doves, which then fly from the stage over the audience to a booth in the back of the theater, except for a few doves who do not perform correctly, and land in the audience, and hide under the chairs in the dark until ushers fish them out. The audience squirms.
Angel invites several more members of the audience to the stage, asks them where they are from and reveals a piece of paper on which he had written their home state before ever meeting them.
Ronda is amazed.
Criss Angel Believe is the first Vegas show Ronda has ever seen, even though she’s lived here since 1997, when she arrived from Arkansas with her husband. They lived in an apartment and got addicted to crack. She told him she wanted a divorce. He beat her with a block of concrete and left her for dead by the railroad tracks downtown. “I’m talking about cement, like pieces of the street,” she says, and her face turns angry. “Hit me in the head 17 times. I dragged myself up to this business, and the man says—listen to what he says—he says, ‘Do you need a paramedic?’ I was bleeding all over, this whole side of my face was bashed in.”
She touches the scar on her face with her rough hand, and her hard expression vanishes for an instant, then reappears: “So, yeah. I needed a paramedic. This one lady with a nice dress helped me. A real nice dress, expensive … and I got three plastic surgeries on my face.”
The scar on her face is visible, but the surgeon has done wonders—the mark doesn’t belie the sort of violence that caused it.
She pauses to think, then changes the subject to Criss Angel.
“He cut a lady right in half. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says, laughing. “It was funny.”
After their doctor’s appointments, Farrell drives Freddie and Ronda back to the campsite, from which they can see Luxor when they wake up each morning. They’ve lived here for several years—four, they think—without being asked to move along. They figure it’s because they are few in number here, and barely visible from most angles.
Near the tent, there’s a fire pit, and Ronda cooks. A few nights ago she made spaghetti.
A familiar group lives here, and they often share meals. Ronda is the only female among them right now, but other women have stayed here. “They [outreach workers] always bring the women to me; I’m like the queen bee,” she says. Last year Ronda took in a 42-year-old woman, Celeste, and the two became good friends before Celeste died from cirrhosis of the liver. “I took to her like a sister,” she says. “She was a sweetheart.”
Sometimes, employees from the Strip hotels spot them from the windows and bring muffins or bagels. Other times, church groups who’ve heard about them come by with water and sandwiches. But by and large, people don’t want to see them, and so they look right over them, or pretend they are not here, and not on the sidewalks, and not under the freeways, not anywhere.
In addition to panhandling, Ronda makes cash from finding wood pallets—the kind movers and construction workers and backstage hands often use—and pushes them in a shopping cart to a pallet distributor downtown, who buys them back for $2.50 each.
When she and Freddie need to clean up, they walk up the rise to the gas station and use the bathrooms.
“I love it here,” Ronda says. “I’ve been here a while; we got everything.”
I ask her if she is, or ever was, afraid. She’s emphatic: “No. I never was.”
I do not believe her.
“When you think about it, my job is really about conquering fears,” Angel says in his book, Mindfreak: Secret Revelations, which is on sale in the Luxor gift shop for $24.95.
Angel’s costumes are goth-rock black and leather. He wears belts and necklaces made of handcuffs, and has perfected a zombie-like stare. The Internet is rife with speculation about his possible devil worshipping; some interpret his show’s name as an allusion to the fallen angel. Before he got a show at Luxor, he drew throngs of followers with his TV show, Mindfreak, on which he routinely shackled himself inside a coffin or cremated himself alive or otherwise chose dark scenarios for his illusions.
Illusions require buy-in, collusion. The appeal is in the shared desire to deny reality—to see someone cut people in half and put them back together again, make handkerchiefs turn into doves, or ignore someone else’s struggles in hopes that they’ll go away.
In the title of his show, Angel asks the audience to believe—or at least to suspend disbelief. It’s a magnificent, sometimes necessary, skill.
A few days after Ronda and Freddie’s visit to the clinic, someone else moves into the squatters’ field.
A group of campers has set up shop on the far side of the lot; their tents are bright red and blue, and their choice of site is less discreet—they are steps from the road, visible from all directions. There’s nothing illusory about it.
I talk to Ronda on her phone, which is running out of minutes, while she’s being shooed by police from a walkway over the Strip. She says the new neighbors are people who had been camped at the Occupy Las Vegas site near the Thomas & Mack Center until recently. She doesn’t care what the movement was about; she’s just pissed that they showed up.
The new neighbors’ visibility quickly draws attention that prompts authorities to order them all off of the site—everyone, including Ronda and Freddie—by the end of the week.
Because I still have questions for Ronda, about her health and her survival and her future, about her relationship with the tourists and the police, about the county’s scrutiny of the Strip’s pedestrian walkways, about the way things seem versus the way things are, about what is real and what is surreal, I decide to catch up with her and Freddie before they move on.
I arrive at the lot on their last day, in the late afternoon, and walk over the rise toward their hidden camp. It’s eerily quiet. The only things left are two shopping carts and some plastic paint buckets, a Nike running shoe, some weathered blankets.
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