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Cool compassion: Nonprofit helps Las Vegas homeless beat the big heat

Dave Marlon jumped out of his black GMC Denali. It was around noon and already over 100 degrees.

He moved quickly across a sizzling stretch of A Street near Washington Avenue and dipped under the gray tarp of a homeless person’s encampment to chat and offer help.

Wednesday was a busy day for Marlon and his colleagues at Vegas Stronger, a local nonprofit dedicated to reducing homelessness.

The nonprofit organization’s outreach specialists hit the streets all year to invite homeless people to take advantage of its services. But Wednesday marked the start of several days of scorching desert heat, making their work even more urgent.

According to the National Weather Service, Wednesday’s high was 108, one degree shy of the all-time high for June 5. It’s supposed to get as hot as 112 on Thursday. And an excessive heat warning runs until 9 p.m. Friday.

‘Absolutely powerful and effective’

Marlon, who is CEO of Vegas Stronger, said the most effective members of the organization’s street team have personal experience with homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness.

“Having walked in those shoes — to be able to have compassion and understand and to let them know there’s a way out — is absolutely powerful and effective,” he said.

Shannon Grisham, a middle-aged man, was sitting in the shade up against a building at the corner of Stewart Avenue and North Maryland Parkway when members of the street team came by.

To those who would take them, the street team was passing out “golden tickets” and flyers with the names of cooling stations open throughout the excessive heat warning period. The tickets list Vegas Stronger’s address and inform homeless people that they can receive free food and shelter if they go to the organization.

Vegas Stronger, located at 916 N. Main St., is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It works with 30 providers to meet the wide-ranging needs of those who walk through its door, Marlon said.

Grisham said it is at times “unbearable” to be a homeless person when the sweltering weather gets like it is this week.

“The heat actually does us like justice,” he said, adding that, unlike during the winter, homeless people can sleep outside in the summertime without needing covers. To survive the heat, Grisham said he is constantly drinking something while awake to counteract constant sweating.

Jeffery McJefferson, who was hanging out under a makeshift shelter on A Street, summed up the heat in one word: “miserable.”

McJefferson, an elderly veteran, said he has been living on the streets of Las Vegas for about two years.

‘Hot water if you don’t have the ice’

Homeless people at the encampments where McJefferson was at are rarely short on water because people are always dropping it off, he said.

“A pickup truck will come by with 20 cases (of water bottles), and they drop it off,” McJefferson said. “But it’s hot water if you don’t have the ice.”

Marlon said homeless people who the street team visits desire three things: water, money and food. He added he advises his staff against giving out those items.

That’s because Vegas Stronger wants to encourage homeless people to come to the organization so they can access broader offerings, including mental-health and substance-abuse services, Marlon said.

“If they want to walk half a block to Vegas Stronger, they can come in and they can have water,” he said. “But we want them to connect with services. Most of the unhoused of the 6,500 who are in Vegas right now are treatment-resistant.”

Asked if he would consider using Vegas Stronger services, Grisham said the programs that he has used in Las Vegas have failed him.

The National Weather Services recommends that people remain in an air-conditioned room and out of the sun during the excessive heat warning. A list of daytime cooling stations open through Friday can be found at helphopehome.org/get-help/

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen@reviewjournal.com.

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