Joy and Michael O'Hare showed up 18 hours early, camped outside Cashman Center and still were not the first people in line for Wednesday's event.
"We were numbers 17 and 18," Joy, 42, said with a smile while her husband sat nearby making a call on a borrowed cell phone at Project Homeless Connect.
The O'Hares, who have been homeless in Las Vegas about five years, wanted to be among the earliest inside the annual event so they had first crack at free services that included haircuts, housing referrals, legal services, job placement aid and free phone calls to out-of-town family members.
"We're really hoping we can get sleeping bags," Joy O'Hare said. "People steal your blankets in the winter when you sleep outside."
By midmorning, hundreds were still standing in line in front of Cashman. Many were like the O'Hares, long-term or "chronic" homeless people who had been on the streets for years.
But there also were plenty of new or "first-time" homeless, victims of the lousy economy, who were still figuring out where to look for help.
"My mom told me about this," said Robert Williams, 27, who has been crashing at a friend's house since he lost his apartment five months ago.
Williams, who has not worked in about a year, came to the event to take advantage of the makeshift court, where judges from local jurisdictions were set up to hear misdemeanor cases and process warrants. He was able to clear up two traffic warrants stemming from his inability to pay the $380 he owed for speeding and driving with no tail lights, he said.
"I didn't have any money, and I could have wound up sitting in jail," he said.
The outstanding warrants made it even tougher to find a warehouse job after a layoff, he said.
Williams also picked up a new sweat shirt, a sack lunch and a bag of toiletries at the event -- all for free.
"This helped a lot," he said.
Hundreds of volunteers helped set up, take down and work the event, which brings together dozens of city, county and social services agencies that help the homeless.
The Nevada Homeless Alliance and the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition's Committee on Homelessness coordinated it.
Event organizers said that because of the economy, they expected to see an increase in the number of new homeless people this year, which is the event's 20th year.
"For a long time there was a lag in people hitting the streets" because they were getting by with temporary help from family and friends, said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, a coordinator with the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition's Committee on Homelessness.
But "people have now used up that good will, and are being told, 'You need to go,' " she said.
Grace Rossello, 44, her boyfriend and her 10-year-old daughter are hoping to get back on their feet before they get to that point.
Rossello, who works off and on cleaning houses, came to Project Homeless Connect in hopes of getting dental and vision care for her daughter.
The family has been staying with a friend for several weeks. A home they were renting was foreclosed on, and they didn't have enough money to get a new place, she said.
"We just want to work, to save enough to get our own place again," she said.
Organizers also thought they would see an increase in overall attendance at the event this year. Instead, about 2,700 people showed up, down from 3,500 last year.
Fuller-Hallauer wasn't sure why attendance was down. It might be because another large-scale event to help the homeless, Preventing Homelessness Connect, was held in June this year, she said. Maybe some people found the help they were looking for there.
Such events are important because they let the desperate know people care about them and are interested in helping them, said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program.
"These are the only rays of hope coming through," she said. "It's just as important to keep their spirits up as to feed their bodies."
An estimated 13,300 homeless people live in the Las Vegas Valley, according to the 2009 Southern Nevada Homeless Census. Another count of the valley's homeless is planned for January.
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.