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Displaced homeless seek shelter at Cashman Field in Las Vegas

In the parking lot of Cashman Field, Touro University Nevada medical student Allison Moran, in blue scrubs and blue gloves and a N95 mask, raised a thermometer to one homeless man’s head.

She asked him the basic questions: Has he traveled outside the country? Was he exposed to the coronavirus? Had he experienced any symptoms?

Gregory Hemminger, 58, answered in the negative. He’d been there the day before — he came to the parking lot to follow social distancing guidelines.

Sunday was Day 2 of using the Cashman Field Center’s upper parking lot as a temporary homeless shelter to accommodate the 500-plus men who were displaced after Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada temporarily closed its night shelter.

The nonprofit closed Wednesday after a shelter employee and a homeless man who accessed services there and at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center on Foremaster Lane tested positive for the coronavirus.

The makeshift shelter at Cashman is open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. through Friday, because Catholic Charities is expected to reopen “sometime mid-week,” city spokesman David Riggleman said. Other parts of Cashman Center are also being reserved for potential hospital overflow for as many as 1,000 patients.

“It was a logistical heavy lift; it really came together,” Riggleman said. “But the advantage here is that we can do better at social distancing by spreading the clients a lot farther apart.”  

Room to spread out

At the new space, there is room for people to sleep in squares painted on the asphalt to create some distance between residents, whereas the space at the Courtyard is so limited that many sleep inches apart.

On Saturday night, 66 people packed the temporary shelter area. (Another 480 slept at the Courtyard — far more than the nightly average.) On Sunday night, 117 set up their flannel sheets and blankets on the cement as the cold wind rushed through.

One man, who tested positive for strep throat, waited under a red tent for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. That’s the protocol for sick clients. If someone has COVID-19, “the city and Clark County are working to stand up some appropriate isolation and quarantine options for people experiencing homelessness,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of community services.

Riggleman said all shelters in town are now screening guests and that nobody who was screened Saturday had symptoms of the virus or had to be quarantined. At the Courtyard, one person tested positive for strep throat.

As the effects of the coronavirus ripple through the community, the city, county and service providers are planning to meet the needs of the particularly vulnerable community, he said.

“If we need to readjust and potentially do it again, we have the mechanisms in place to allow us to do that,” Riggleman said.

Some prefer Courtyard

On Sunday afternoon at the Courtyard, some of the people who came to be screened at Cashman Field the day before said they wouldn’t go back. The temporary shelter is open for those who are able to walk there from the Courtyard, which is about a 0.7-mile trek. Those who are disabled or have health issues stay at the Courtyard.

“Here, if you move your elbow, you goin’ to bump someone. But we have mats to sleep on,” said 63-year-old Johnny Wingo as he adjusted his glasses and his black Las Vegas hat. “There, there’s no tent; what if the rain comes?”

But Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of community services, said the city was doing the best it could with the limited time. The city had tried to get additional mats, but the demands have increased. It was difficult to get port-a-potties and hand washing stations to the new site and the city had been “in bidding wars” to get the items needed, she said.

“This has been a quick response to the need,”Literally we stood this up in five to six hours … , Every community in America, every community in the world, is dealing with COVID-19,” Thomas-Gibson said. “All of us kind of banded together so we could offer choices to people.”

Some of the people who chose to come to Cashman Center on Sunday, like Hemminger, said they were happy for an alternative to the Courtyard.

“This assures me I’m safe; and I’m not sleeping up next to someone, not knowing if they have the virus,” the bearded man said as he shook his head and sat on his walker. “Everything’s chaos right now.”

One woman, Marilyn Whitaker, said hygiene among the homeless is an issue; she hadn’t had a shower in three weeks. The row of port-a-potties on site were good for the bathroom, but the shower truck was only for folks to wash their hands.

“There’s a lot of negative going around, but you still got to look at Almighty above for positivity — we have the fresh air, we have the sunshine, we hope that kills it,” the 66-year-old said.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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