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Homeless on Las Vegas Strip reluctant to take aid from police

Fletcher Smith is tired of living on the streets.

He’s tired of getting sucker-punched by drunken tourists. He’s tired of people putting him down, telling him he’s worthless. He’s tired of carrying all of his belongings with him everywhere he goes, packed into one small, rolling suitcase with a cat carrier strapped on top of it.But none of that motivates him enough to take the offers of help from Annie Wilson, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s homeless liaison. On a recent Thursday, Wilson offered him emergency shelter with a warm bed to sleep in, hot meals to eat and a new direction in life. Smith could go to his new, temporary home at Catholic Charities immediately, leaving the Strip sidewalk to the tourists and buskers who sometimes hassle him. But he would have to give up his kitten, Lucky, at least for a couple of weeks.

That was a deal-breaker.

“I want to keep her. She’s my baby,” says Smith, 36.

Wilson cajoles him. Smith could put the kitten into a no-kill shelter or ask a friend to take care of her for a couple of weeks. That’s how long it would take to get him enrolled in a homeless program that provides a rent stipend for an apartment.

“If he needs a bus ticket to visit the cat, I’ll give him a bus ticket,” Wilson says, trying everything to reason with Smith.

Smith’s resistance isn’t unusual, Wilson says. Though many homeless people refuse help across the valley, those on the Strip have been particularly unwilling to take advantage of city and county services that could drastically change their lives, for the better. It’s an issue that Wilson and police Lt. Robert DuVall are trying to address.

There was a time when the homeless were relegated to certain areas in the valley: encampments near downtown Las Vegas, in the tunnels underneath the Strip. Rarely were they seen near Strip casinos, on Strip sidewalks or pedestrian bridges. Not so anymore.

A few weeks ago, Wilson and DuVall, who is assigned to the Convention Center Area Command and supervises 25 officers who work the Strip, canvassed the pedestrian bridges on the Strip. They wanted to get a sense of who was out there and why.

There are three kinds of homeless people on the Strip: those who want help, those who don’t want help and those who aren’t really homeless but say they are in an attempt to “tug on the heartstrings” and solicit money from tourists, DuVall says.

Of the 30 or so homeless people they spoke to that night, only a couple of them expressed interest in help.

The Strip is a powerful draw, DuVall says, and can provide the homeless with round-the-clock shelter, bathrooms and potential sources of income. Well-meaning people will give them money, even buy them food. Some homeless people play musical instruments for tips; others dress as characters and pose for photos with tourists. Some bring their pets — dogs, cats, lizards — and hope that a softhearted tourist will give them money for pet food. The county recently passed an ordinance banning animals from noon to 5 a.m. daily on the Strip. Service animals are exempt.

DuVall and Wilson have been brainstorming ideas on how tourists on the Strip can help those who are legitimately homeless, perhaps through a donation center somewhere on the Strip or meters that accept donations.

“There are people who really need a meal. What we’d like to do is put some kind of way out there for people to help the homeless if they want to,” DuVall says.

On this recent Thursday, DuVall, Wilson and officers Libby Vargas and Nick Brigandi walk the Strip making contact with the homeless. In nearly three hours, they speak to more than half a dozen people about their lives on the street. They find Smith sitting in the shade of an escalator near Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon at Flamingo Road and the Strip. Lucky sits in his lap, twisting and flipping like the energetic 4-month-old kitten she is. She plays with a string attached to her cat carrier, never straying far from Smith’s lap.

The animal ordinance had not yet taken effect; Smith seems unconcerned when DuVall tells him about it. Originally from Idaho, Smith has been living on the streets for about six months, this time. In all, he has been homeless for five years. He came to Las Vegas because “if I was going to be homeless, I wasn’t going to be homeless in Idaho.”

He’s tried to get off the streets, Smith says, even explored the military as an option. But that didn’t work out and unskilled construction jobs have been hard to come by. He bristles when asked about his past and how he became homeless, only saying that his sister kicked him out of her Idaho house for no good reason.

Every day, he puts out a towel with a lone quarter on it, hoping passers-by get the hint and place some money next to it.

If he makes at least $39.07, Smith rents a room at Motel 6, sneaking his kitten in at night. If he doesn’t earn that much, he finds someone who wants to share a room. On those nights when he doesn’t have any money at all, he crawls into semitrailers at night.

Sometimes, homeless people don’t know what services are available to them, Wilson says. She questions them: Are you a veteran? Do you have family? Do you have a birth certificate? She carries pamphlets with her, detailing some of the programs available through nonprofits and government entities. Some programs pay for a bus ticket back home, if a person has family willing to take them in. There are job programs, food assistance and housing programs.

Smith says he’s interested in the Homeless to Home program, which will give him a stipend for an apartment where he and Lucky can live in comfort. He plans to stay on the streets until he’s accepted in the program.

“This will be a problem,” Wilson says later. “When his name comes up for the program, we most likely won’t be able to find him.”

But Smith didn’t think it would be a problem, at all. He says he will be very easy to find.

“I’ll be around the heart of the Strip,” Smith says. “This is where I live.”

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at
spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.
Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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