The sidewalk along Foremaster Lane is cramped with shabby tents and makeshift cardboard shelters. Trash litters the street, and the stench of stale urine permeates the air.
This is about as close to Skid Row as you’ll find in Las Vegas. It’s home to drunks, addicts and the mentally ill, mostly men and a few women down on their luck in a city that will sap every last ounce of it and laugh in your face should you dare to cry about it.
Welcome to the world of Deacon Tom Roberts, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, whose headquarters are located in the heart of the homeless district and serve as a beacon for these lost souls.
A former casino executive with Harrah’s and Station Casinos, Roberts came to Catholic Charities as a volunteer and was roped into the leadership role in 2013 after the passing of Monsignor Patrick Leary, who ran the agency for 10 years. The job allows Roberts to fulfill his ministry of service to God’s less-fortunate people.
“Although we’re called Catholic Charities, I like to say we don’t check religious ID cards at the door here. We serve all God’s children—anyone who needs help and hope.” – Deacon Tom Roberts
“It’s a great way to give back to those who really need it,” he says. “I really did fall in love with the work. I realized how blessed I am with my family, my wife and three kids. I’m a big believer in the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was preparing me for this job my whole life and I never knew it.”
Roberts has shepherded one of Nevada’s oldest charity organizations through an era of expansion, moving from the casino industry to the nonprofit sector to make a difference in the lives of thousands of street people in need of basic services.
Catholic Charities is celebrating its 75th year of providing services in Las Vegas. It started with adoption services in 1941, and grew to food and nutrition programs, child and family services, senior services, immigration and refugee services, employment assistance, and housing and shelter.
“From the very beginning, it was always about serving anybody who had need, not just Catholics,” Roberts says. “Although we’re called Catholic Charities, I like to say we don’t check religious ID cards at the door here. We serve all God’s children—anyone who needs help and hope.”
Catholic Charities went from a $10,000 annual operating budget in 1941 to more than $20 million today. It was awarded a $2.4 million Clark County Community Development Block Grant in April to expand its food pantry and Meals on Wheels program, which feeds about 2,000 seniors a day and will increase to 2,600 meals with 3,800 square feet of additional kitchen space.
Drivers go into the homes and are trained to look for other issues the senior might be facing, Roberts says. He once went on a ride-along and saw Meals on Wheels dishes on the floor.
“Why’s the dish on the ground if you like the food? And they said, ‘We can’t afford to feed our pets and feed ourselves.’ Heartbreaking,” Roberts says. “So when we get donated pet food, we put it on the trucks and then if the client has a pet, the driver can offer free pet food so that the senior doesn’t have to make that terrible decision to share their food with pets. In some cases, sadly, that’s the only companion that senior might have.”
The shelter is another significant component of Catholic Charities. The overnight shelter routinely takes in more than 500 men a night, and another 300 come to the day shelter.
“It’s free, and again, no questions asked,” Roberts says. “They get clean sheets, they get hygiene kits, they can take a shower, they get water and they get safety. And while they’re there, they can get connected to other services. Our goal is to get them some help and some hope to get back to some level of independent living. That’s the road map that we want to help everybody get on.”
Roberts grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the youngest of six children. His father suffered a heart attack and died when the boy was just 3 years old. His mother raised the kids by herself.
“[When] people [ask] who’s been an important figure in your life, I’d say my mom,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around the world and meet lots of people, to meet presidents. No one has had the impact on me that my mom had. As a young family we were struggling, but my mom said if we stick together and believe in God, things are going to work out.”
He attended Catholic grade school and high school, got his undergraduate degree at Youngstown State University and a master’s degree in finance from Phillips University in Oklahoma. After graduation, he went into the shopping center business in Chicago, building a new shopping center near Wrigley Field.
He came to Las Vegas in the late 1980s as general manager of the Forum Shops at Caesars, helping to develop and open the tony retail center in 1992.
“I was very blessed to do that. As much as The Mirage changed the dynamic of the resort industry, I think the Forum Shops changed the dynamic of how people saw entertainment retail in Las Vegas and around the world,” he says.
Roberts was ordained as a deacon five years ago, but had never set foot on Catholic Charities’ eight-acre campus until Monsignor Leary died of a heart attack.
“Very tragic, very sudden,” Roberts says. “He went home on Friday night and passed away, just a great guy. The bishop knew I had a business background. He called me. ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ I showed up Monday morning with the bishop and said I’ll be transition administrator. I’d work with the board of trustees to find a new CEO.
“What started as two weeks went into two months and then six months. The bishop and board came back to me and said we found the perfect guy for the job, will you take it? So here I am. It’s been a wonderful blessing for me to give back with my business background and as permanent deacon in the church. It’s been a great opportunity for me to serve.”