Homeless In Las Vegas

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Below the iconic Las Vegas Strip, another reality exists in stark contrast to the gambling and entertainment excesses. This week, Louis Lacey of HELP of Southern Nevada paints the picture of homelessness in the city’s drainage tunnels, and how his personal experience with homelessness has influenced his community outreach work. We also talk with Emily Paulsen of the Nevada Homeless Alliance about solutions to homelessness and the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.


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Speaker, Emily Paulsen, Julian Castro, Louis Lacey, Reporter on TV

Louis Lacey  00:02

I’ve gone through what you’re going through. I have experienced homelessness; I know what it’s like to not have anywhere to go. I know what it’s like to be sitting outside and to have that realization that I do not matter and that I am pretty much invisible.

Julian Castro  

Louis Lacey leads the crisis outreach team at HELP of Southern Nevada. But before he was helping Homeless Nevada and Secure Permanent Housing, he was one of them.

Louis Lacey  

It’s one thing for someone to walk by a person stuck in a hole and say, “Hey, I hope you get out. Here’s a rope or, here’s the map on how to get out.” I can literally jump in that hole with you and say, “Hey, no worries. I’ve been down here before; this is how we get out.”

Julian Castro 

I met Lou last year on a tour of the city’s drainage tunnels. He was my guide into this underbelly of Las Vegas that houses over 500 of the city’s homeless individuals. Lou introduced me to some of these folks who I never would have met without his guidance. And even in that cold, dark environment. He was so warm and friendly to everyone. But there’s a deep irony in the homelessness directly below the garish wealth of the Las Vegas Strip. This iconic 4.2 mile stretch of upscale casinos and hotels that drive the city’s economy. As I know from my experience as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama Administration, working on solutions to homelessness from a policy perspective is one thing. But actually meeting people without a working shower, or the privacy of four walls is another. This week, we talked with Lou and with Emily Paulsen, who is the director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, about what proven solutions could put an end to this national shame.

Julian Castro 

This is OUR AMERICA. I’m your host, Julian Castro.

Julian Castro  02:10

Tell me about why you decided to do this kind of community outreach?

Louis Lacey 

Alright, thank you, Mr. Secretary, I believe that everything that happens to a person in their life can potentially lead them to the place that they’re supposed to be. So one time in my life, I experienced homelessness, due to my substance abuse issues, and several other factors. Fortunately, for me, there were people in my life that really cared for me and did not give up reaching out to me, I was a man on a cliff. And barely holding on. And having that conversation in my mind saying, “you know, you’re gonna let go, right?” That was horrifying when I realized that I was trapped. And there was no way out for me. And so when I let go and just said, “Okay, I’m a junkie, and I’m going to be homeless, and I’m going to be addicted to drugs all my life,” and I was falling into the abyss. And all I can say is that somehow, someway, I ended up in a rehab and when I saw the opportunity to get clean and sober, I took it and I have never looked back.

Julian Castro 

Do you talk to somebody out there who reminds you of yourself, of your own journey?

Louis Lacey  

Almost every time, especially the hopeless cases, I love the hopeless cases, those ones that everyone else goes, “that guy or that girl is never going to get clean and sober.” That’s not going to happen. They’re too far gone. And I always I just gravitate towards those guys, because that’s what they said about me. Voted most likely to die young, voted most likely to end up in jail. And so when I meet people that don’t understand, I basically say “Hi, my name is Louis Lacey, and I’m a miracle.”

Julian Castro  04:07

Louis sharing that miracle every day. With over a decade of experience working with homeless populations, his impact reverberates throughout the community.

Louis Lacey 

Through the years of doing this, every once in a while somebody will walk up to you and go, “Hey, man, do you remember me?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t remember you” and the guys like, “you came out to the desert. You saw me, man, you got me into a housing program. And I just wanted to thank you, you saved my life.” And I’m like, “you know what? You just blessed me more than I could have blessed you.” I can tell you that, about a year ago, I went every first Friday of the month we have what is known in Vegas is First Friday. And I went and I was walking to the little art galleries, and I’m looking at all the artists and all this stuff. And I know a few people that are artists there. But as I’m going through one of the galleries, this guy’s like, “Lou! Lou!” and I turn around, I look at him, I recognize him, but I don’t know where from. And he’s like, “Hey, man, I just, I just want to thank you for coming to get me. And you got me into that housing program. 

And because you did that,” and then he kind of like, points to the wall. He goes, “They’re displaying my art today, I’m having, you know, showing” because you were able to get, and I was just like, I don’t even know it like, “No, dude, Don’t thank me, thank you, you did the work. You took advantage of the opportunity. And there you go, there’s another miracle.” It’s always look at that bum, that person’s crazy. Like you were saying, until it’s your nephew, until your son, or your daughter, or your mom or your dad, I would say, Don’t harden your heart, don’t be so cold. Look, small acts of kindness can be a bridge to someone getting their hope back. Because being hopeless, hopelessly trapped is a horrible thing and I can tell you that I know. It’s horrible. And it’s devastating. But there is hope. People do recover. And we can fix this problem. We can do this; this is not a lost cause.

Julian Castro  06:32

Talk to me about your experience. And the irony of these homeless individuals, people with nowhere else to live, sleeping underneath these hotels that are worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. In some cases.

Louis Lacey 

There are approximately 500 miles of tunnels underneath Las Vegas. Last year, we counted 192 individuals that we counted on one day in the tunnels, the tunnels are possibly the ideal place to go, in a sense, because it’s four walls, it protects you from the elements. But Las Vegas is a gambling town, if you’re going to be in the tunnels, you have to understand that if it rains, you have literally minutes to get out. And here’s the thing, the water? It’s not initially what kills you. What happens is for those folks that can’t get out all the debris and everything knocks you to the ground. And once you are under the water, it’s a wrap.

Julian Castro 

And there have been deaths down there in the tunnel?

Louis Lacey  

Yes, there have been and every time that we know it’s gonna rain, what we do is we get out there, mobilize everybody, and start posting warnings going into all the tunnels and letting everybody know you’ve got to get out it’s about to rain. Once that rain event has occurred, then we go back. And we check to make sure everybody’s okay, so we basically do this giant well check.

Julian Castro 

The solution to homelessness is not just about giving someone the keys to a house. It’s about all the services that combine to create a stable, sustainable foundation. That means access to medical care, mental health treatment, support groups, and assistance with paperwork that’s necessary to make all of that happen.

Louis Lacey  08:19

One of the things I like about what we’re doing with the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team and all the other outreach teams is that we literally bring the Social Services Department, out into the field into the tunnels out into the alleyways, the parks, wherever folks are experiencing homelessness, we’re going to show up with everything you need. I know that I didn’t go get services because I stunk, I didn’t take showers for long periods of time, I had so much guilt about that and shame about that. Like if you go to the welfare department or the Social Security Office, you’re going to be there for a while. I was mentally incapable of following through or even being able to sit there for three or four hours. With the outreach teams that were operating. We’re bringing these vital services to the clients in the field. We are walking them through the process. 

And that is what is important. We want to take away those barriers. There’s no reason you can’t get your food stamp card. There’s no reason you can’t get your Medicaid. What you have a court case? Great. We’re picking you up on Tuesday, and we’re taking you to court and we’re going to go in court and meet the judge with you. What you need to go to detox get in the car, we’re going to take you and guess what when they release you call us we’re going to come and get you. You need to go to a shelter? Great. We’re going to take you to a shelter. Do you need help getting your Social Security Disability? Great. We can help you complete the application and we can help you meet with an advocate that can help you get your disability paperwork; you need an ID? Awesome. I’m going to pay for your birth certificate and your ID and I’m going to pick you up and take you to the DMV and make sure you get it and you can have it mailed to our agency. 


My vision is to have a full-on multidisciplinary outreach team where we’ve got mental health therapists out in the field with us. We’ve got medical professionals out in the field with us. We are already partnering with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. And they have a specialized outreach team that goes out with us and they also have one that works within the city. And so this is proving to be quite successful. Nobody thought it would work. It’s working. 

Julian Castro

But Lou can’t do this work alone. He’s part of the bigger network of organizations helping to end homelessness in Nevada. After the break, we’ll meet one of his partners.

Julian Castro 

During last year’s trip to Las Vegas, Lou and I were also joined by Emily Paulsen. Emily and Lou have partnered up to find solutions for the state’s homeless population. 7000 Nevadans face homelessness on any given day, mostly as a result of joblessness. And when it comes to housing, the state has the worst shortage of affordable rental homes in the nation.

Emily Paulsen 

I think it is easy when you see a problem, time and time again to become desensitized and to want to ignore it. And I simply can’t ignore it. Because I have had the opportunity to sit with people in their darkest times and the lowest places and see their humanity. I’ve seen firsthand the transformative cure that housing is for people who are homeless. And I believe that housing coupled with services is the prescription to end homelessness it is a cure. There are such simple solutions, right? We know what works because of data and evidence. And it’s a shame. I think that we don’t have the political will and our local community in our state and really across the nation to take those solutions to scale. So it’s not that we don’t know what works, or that we’re this is some mysterious problem that we just can’t figure out how to solve it, that we know the solutions and yet we don’t see the political will to take those solutions to scale. And that’s incredibly frustrating.

Julian Castro  12:47

I remember visiting Las Vegas during the Obama Administration to help celebrate the functional and veteran homelessness. And then last year in 2019, visiting again, and learning about an ordinance that the mayor and council were considering and ultimately passed that basically criminalized homelessness. Can you talk to me a little bit about that ordinance that you opposed and the evolution what’s happened in Vegas in terms of the approach the attitude toward people experiencing homelessness.

Emily Paulsen  

Simply put, the city of Las Vegas spends a lot of money sheltering people in parking lots. Most of the city’s budget spent on Homeless Services is spent on what they call the courtyard, which is essentially a parking lot where people sleep outdoors, and where they can also access some services during the day and porta potties. The ordinance in my opinion is a tool to force people who are homeless from areas where they’re otherwise sleeping, such as a sidewalk or an encampment and require them to sleep instead at the courtyard or in jail. So the city also spends a lot of money, actually much more money sheltering people who are homeless in jail than they do in interventions like permanent supportive housing. 


So the last year that we have data on where the city spent over $1.3 million sheltering people in jail who are homeless, but zero dollars on permanent supportive housing and so there were actually two ordinances that passed, which makes it a crime makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by six months in jail or up to $1,000 fine to sleep on certain city streets if there’s space at the courtyard, or at one of the shelters. But another ordinance also passed where it’s a misdemeanor to be on the sidewalk when the sidewalks are subject to street cleaning. And the problem because I just saw that the streets have been cleaned. And the street cleaners have left and I sit down on the sidewalk during the hours where it’s posted that I cannot, I’m still subject to a misdemeanor arrest, and fine.

Julian Castro 

Many people when they think of someone who’s homeless, the focus oftentimes is so negative, and almost like puts people in this sub category of humans, so that folks can easily explain away why these individuals are sleeping on the street. What I found though is that the reality is, you often have a lot of people who they’re just one episode in life, whether that’s a financial hardship, or a medical issue, just one episode in life from finding themselves in a position that they never thought they would be in the prospect of not having a bed to sleep in at night and living on the street. Can you talk to me about what kind of misperceptions do people often have about people who are experiencing homelessness? And then what is the reality as you’ve seen it?

Emily Paulsen  16:16

The reality that I see is that people who experience homelessness are some of the most resilient, adaptable people that you could ever meet. And we often see their ability to survive, and how they do that, like constructing a tent, or asking for money, or sitting down on a bench at a bus stop, we see these things as problematic. And now we see them as illegal, right? We see them as criminal. But these are things that people have to do to survive. And I think if we first recognize that, and honor that these are people in our community who are just trying to survive, and they’re really simple things that we can do to help them so that isn’t what they have to do. And I’ve met people with doctorates, I’ve met people with so many diverse backgrounds that never in their life imagined that they would ever experience homelessness. 

Mothers living in cars with their children who were working full time their whole life until two weeks ago, but they had no money saved, because they were living paycheck to paycheck, because the cost of housing is so high and their wages are so low. There’s so many different stories. And I really believe it could happen to any one of us really quickly in ways that we really can’t imagine and or that we take for granted. So when sudden traumatic experiences happen like unemployment, or loss of a loved one, or provider, domestic violence being kicked out of your home, when you’re a young person, because your parents find out that you’re gay, or they reject your gender identity. There’s so many different reasons that people in many different backgrounds and ages experience homelessness.

Julian Castro  18:21

Absolutely. The work that you do, in many ways is very emotional work. Can you think of a story or two that really touched you over the years?

Emily Paulsen 

I can think of so many stories, but I’ll tell you the story about Bill. Who was a veteran, and when I was a street outreach worker, I would visit bill and his friends many times, I lost count of how many times they would go to their encampment, but bill would never talk to me and I didn’t even know what his name was for months and months. But he overheard me talking to one of his buddies, who was also a veteran about how he could go around the corner and enroll in services at the VA and that those services included housing, and Bill, he had no faith in in the VA as an institution. And absolutely did not believe this young girl coming up and talking about promising housing and all these things, right? A meal and support with looking for work. And so he just never, he would never even say hello back to me for months a month. And so one day I was actually at a nearby encampment and he walked up to me and he tapped me on my shoulder and I turned around and he was standing there and he didn’t say a word. He just held up his DD214

Julian Castro 

A DD214 verifies military service. Without it, Bills veterans benefits were effectively moved. By filling out that form, he was now eligible for housing, job training, and medical care.

Emily Paulsen  20:02

And from there, we replaced him into housing. And you know, within a year he had a job as a security guard. He had completely new restorative dental work done or had a full set of dentures, he reunified with his family. There’s so many lives I’ve seen touched and transformed by housing. But Bill, his story really stuck with me because of just the physical transformation he went through but his entire personality, how it changed once he had the hope and security that housing provides. And he actually passed away pretty soon after he got the job and was reconnected with family. He passed away from cancer. And I remember thinking how unfair that was, right? And I was upset about that  A lot of the people on our staff team that I think we found some solace in knowing that in his final two years of his life, that he didn’t die alone on the street. And that he had his family and a lot of people that he was really connected to.

Julian Castro  

When we talk about solutions to homelessness, a large part of it has to do with practicality. After the break, we’ll hear more about the impact of the Corona Virus on Nevada’s homeless, and the failed logic that was used to address it.

Julian Castro 

At the start of the Corona Virus pandemic, the Catholic Charities Homeless Shelter in Las Vegas was forced to close after one person tested positive for the virus. This meant that all of a sudden, about 500 homeless folks had to find a new place to sleep in 40-degree weather with other shelters at capacity and some having to reduce their numbers to practice social distancing. The city’s response was to create a makeshift shelter in the uncovered parking lot of the Cashman Center. Instead of housing people inside the convention center, or in one of the more than 100,000 empty hotel rooms around the city. They drew rectangles and white chalk on the concrete that we’re just big enough for a person to fit inside while laying down. Just to be clear, these individuals were sleeping outside in a parking lot. No mats, no pillows,

Reporter on TV 

Helping the valley’s most vulnerable amid made Corona Virus chaos. That’s the goal of a temporary shelter set up right by Cashman Center. 

Reporter on TV  

Now the temporary shelter caused some controversy online when it first opened.

Reporter on TV 

The temporary shelter was the go-to spot until they could reopen.

Emily Paulsen  22:56

We were really discouraged by that. It was not long; it didn’t last long. Because thankfully the emergency shelter was able to reopen. But it was really an embarrassment nationally. People were talking about this parking lot in Cashman and rightfully so, shame on our community that we could have placed these people indoors and I understand there’s a lot of questions right around how to do that safely. But there are so many events held in Las Vegas, where the entertainment capital of the world and so I don’t accept for one minute that we couldn’t have put up some tents that we couldn’t have provided some sleeping bags and blankets. There was an opportunity for mats to be placed in the parking lot and those were rejected. There were community groups coming to provide food to the people staying there that was rejected, and it’s just not acceptable.

Julian Castro  

Before the pandemic, Las Vegas had one of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness in the country. On any given night, there were only enough beds to shelter about 30% of homeless residents. And this number dropped to 10% for young people and families. Since March, the situation has only worsened.

Emily Paulsen  24:19

If we were to have a do over on that. There’s so many other things we could have done to provide some basic shelter and warmth and food. We could have done so much better for those Southern Nevadans. But there are some good things happening now. So there are you know motel rooms that are being used as non congregate shelter. There are several quarantine sites that have opened up. So if someone is hospitalized for COVID-19, that they’re not being discharged to the street, but they are provided with a safe stable place to stay and there’s no time limit on them to stay there. And so the goal is that we’re working right now closely with the local governments in Southern Nevada and nonprofit partners to rapidly expand permanent supportive housing and other supportive housing so that the people who we’ve placed into motel rooms as a community are not going to go back out onto the street.

But they are on a path right now to permanent stable housing. And that’s really important because we know this pandemic is not going away and so housing is a really important intervention at any time, right? Even pre pandemic, we know that housing is healthcare and then when people live out on the streets, or in storm drains, and in cars and desert encampments, that has really significant consequences to their health into their mental health. I think we have a lot of work to do to build the political will to really take the solutions we know to full scale; I do see some progress in the acknowledgement and understanding of these interventions by electeds. And actions that they are willing to take and to be bold to protect people from homelessness and to help provide the right services. 


So, you know, when the Clark County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously for that Renters Protection for the Source of Income Discrimination Bill, that gave me hope. This is a really important policy move right now that prohibits landlords from saying things like we don’t accept section eight vouchers, or you must have income from employment. That’s really problematic right now when we have a historic number of people who are unemployed due to no fault of their own. This bill also went even further to ensure that if someone has an eviction related to COVID-19, that also could not be a disqualifier on their rental application.

Julian Castro  26:55

You said, we know what works. We know how we can effectively end homelessness. Tell me what does that look like?

Emily Paulsen 

We need to recognize housing as a human right. That everyone in our country should have a roof over their head and a safe and stable place to call home. To achieve that we need to make sure that housing is affordable. I mean, to make sure people can earn a living wage, that if you work full time in our community, that you can afford to rent or own a home, that if you’re disabled, you can afford to rent or own a home. Nowhere in our country, can someone earning SSI afford fair market rent, that’s wrong. We need to do better to make sure that housing is accessible and available for everyone, regardless of their income or ability.

Julian Castro

Let’s say that we’re having this conversation at the end of your career. What are you gonna hold in your heart the most? What is going to be the most meaningful part of all this to you?

Emily Paulsen  28:08

Well, I’d like to think that 30 years from now, this conversation would be completely different, right? That we wouldn’t be talking about thousands of people living on our streets alone, we will be telling the success stories, right? Of how we overcame this by ensuring everyone had housing, and ensuring people could earn a living wage. And we look back at this time of like why didn’t we do something sooner? Or wasn’t that really just simple? At the end of it wasn’t that just a really simple actions we took, maybe the problem really wasn’t as complex or challenging as we thought it once was, maybe we talk about like back in my day there used to be this problem. And people think, oh, gosh, that’s crazy. Once was that way. And that’s how I hope you know, to talk about this problem is it was a once was problem, not as a current day problem. And I really believe that I really believe that is what our conversation will look like 30 years from now or sound like 30 years from now. And I wouldn’t go I will hope to feel content that I was a part of making that happen.

Julian Castro

Well, thank you so much for the conversation. It’s wonderful work that you’re doing. Keep fighting the good fight. Thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Emily Paulsen 

Thank you so much for all of the changes that you’ve made in our country in terms of housing justice, and it’s not for not when our community is still in many ways practicing housing first, and I absolutely believe that we’ll have these ordinances and the criminalization of people who are experiencing homelessness will be overturned and we will fight back against that successfully. There’s a lot of work ahead to keep making progress here, for sure. But what you’ve done as Secretary of HUD to get us where we’re at right now is really something that I’m personally grateful to you for. So thank you for that.

Julian Castro  30:16

Next week, our team is taking a break for Thanksgiving. So we’ll be re-airing the very first episode of OUR AMERICA. In Episode One, I talked to my mom and brother about the America we experienced growing up, and how that shaped us into who we are today. As we all count our blessings on Thanksgiving. I encourage you to celebrate the indigenous peoples who built our country whose land we live on to this day. In the midst of a pandemic that was so unforgivably mismanaged, I’m more grateful than ever for the roof over my family’s head, a luxury that so many Americans don’t have. This Thanksgiving. Let’s take the time to consider our health, our family, our friends, the people who continue to sustain our nation, and those who are too often left behind,


I want for this country to live up to those ideals that it espouses in has always espoused both in the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance that we say, liberty and justice for all but truly for all.

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