Homeless people aren’t just the sign-clutching adults you happen to notice on your way to work. There are more than 14,000 homeless youth enrolled in Clark County schools— though many would prefer to disappear before ever drawing attention to themselves.
“They’re a hidden and voiceless population and very intentionally,” says Arash Ghafoori, who’s been the executive director of Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth for five years. “They don’t want to be ostracized. They don’t want to be further victimized. They don’t want to be called out. They don’t want to be made fun of.”
Those affected by Nevada’s homeless issue may remain silent, but the numbers don’t. The state ranks No.1 in the country for the highest rate of unaccompanied, unsheltered homeless youth, at 82 percent. With the help of a federal grant and investments from Las Vegas Sands Corp., Ghafoori’s organization expanded its drop-in center hours by 21 hours per week, and doubled its emergency shelter beds from four to eight, to shelter youths, aged 12 to 18, earlier this year. They can stay until age 21 if they get in before their 19th birthday.
The youth drop-in center, located walking distance from UNLV, blends right in with its neighbors—by design. Shelters work to provide the immediate needs of an individual: shower, a hot meal and a bed. But to Ghafoori, “that’s a Band-Aid.”
The one-story drop-in center is fashioned to meet the needs of the kids. There’s a fridge stocked with food donated by chains such as Chipotle and Pizza Hut, tutoring rooms, an art therapy room with the guitars, drum machines and easels, a library, a selection of video games and a basketball court, among other resources.
Photos by Krystal Ramirez
These resources allow the youth to shine. In his time as executive director, Ghafoori has seen kids go on to receive basketball scholarships, become state track champions, as well as models, entrepreneurs and advocates who want to prevent homelessness.
This kind of progress doesn’t happen overnight. It requires building a rapport with the kids so they feel safe. By the time they show up at the drop-in center, they’re done trusting adults. “We have kids that get locked up by their parents and not allowed to go to school, [some] since the age of eighth grade,” Ghafoori says.
It takes all of the center’s services working in tandem to attempt to replace what was lost. In addition to transitional housing and crisis intervention, the organization offers family reunification opportunities, legal assistance and case management from licensed social workers, among many other services.
“We’re not just a run-of-the-mill charity going, ‘All right, we feel sorry for youth, we’re going to have a shelter for you,’” Ghafoori says. “We have a comprehensive ecosystem designed specifically for homeless youth that are adopted and created from every best practice that we can find that we agree with. … But what I need the community to understand is that we are signaling loud and hard, ‘We need more investment.’”
He’s calling for advocacy from every pillar—schools, parents, government, donors. The goal isn’t just to reduce the amount of homeless youth in our state, it’s to prevent it entirely. There’s no reason to wait for a youth to get hooked on drugs or coerced into prostitution before taking action, according to Ghafoori. There needs to be an understanding of the repercussions reaching rock bottom has on the youth and society, he adds.
Ghafoori hopes to beat the drums to alert the community. “This is not a feel-sorry-for-a-kid-or-two issue,” he says. “This is an epidemic that has a generational impact. There is going to be a loss of productivity to society. There’s going to be a loss of civic engagement. There’s going to be a loss of self worth and value that’s systemic and pervasive if we don’t do something about it.”
Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth
4981 Shirley St. Open 8 a.m.–7 p.m., Mon–Sat. To volunteer or find out more information, visit nphy.org.