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‘If you see us, ask for help’: Metro’s Homeless Outreach Team takes to the streets

On a warm, clear Monday morning, a pair of Metropolitan Police Department officers knocked three times on a blanket-covered back passenger side window of a black sedan at Charlie Frias Park.

Orui Woods and Angel Nunez announced their presence.

“Metro police, homeless outreach,” they said.

Forty-five-year-old Luis Velez rolled down the window of the only car in the parking lot. He and his dog, Doodles, looked up at the men in hunter green uniforms.

“Sorry to wake you,” the officers said.

All the windows had been covered with tarp and blankets. Food and clothing was scattered across the seats. Velez said he and his dog had been living in the car for a few weeks with his girlfriend, who was working a new job at a nearby Rebel convenience store that May 1 morning.

They’re hoping to find more permanent housing, Velez told the officers.

Woods and Nunez said the start of the month meant the couple could apply for public assistance, suggesting that Velez could stay at the Salvation Army on West Owens for the day, rather than sleep in his car.

“Even if it’s just one night, you can take a shower down there, take your dog and wash your clothes,” Woods told him.

Velez politely declined.

The officers wished him a good day and walked away.

Woods, Nunez and Officer Dwayne Henderson make up Metro’s three-man Homeless Outreach Team that walks Clark County streets, offering to connect people with organizations that offer food, housing and help finding employment.

Every Monday through Thursday, beginning at 5:30 a.m., they canvass parks, the Las Vegas Strip and various locations across Clark County where homeless people gather. Two other Metro officers patrol areas within Las Vegas city limits.

“We just try to offer help, it’s up to them to take the help,” Nunez said after trying to talk to a man sleeping on a concrete bench at Charlie Frias.

The man rolled from the bench, grabbed his backpack and walked away.

Dozens of greetings

A few days later, Sgt. Steven Reese joined Henderson and Nunez for a three-mile walk along Las Vegas Boulevard.

Their first encounter was with a man sitting on a warm vent outside Flamingo. He declined to give his name and smiled at the officers as they passed.

“Usually he doesn’t really want nothing, but hopefully he’ll go,” Reese said of the man he had seen on the Strip in the past.

Henderson gave him a pair of black socks from a bag he keeps in his cruiser, and in less than 15 minutes they had convinced the man to take a ride to Salvation Army.

The department’s Homeless Outreach Team, launched in 2018, prioritizes offering services to those in need valley-wide.

Separately, Metro’s Community Orientated Policing division monitors homelessness and maintains contact with people living on the streets in each area command.

As of May 1, Homeless Outreach had made more than 37,000 contacts with people since the program started. More than 11,000 of them had accepted services and nearly 2,000 people had accepted shelter, according to Metro data.

Reese said officers had spoken with at least 55 people on the Strip in two days in the past month. Many of them were not new faces.

“It’s frustrating coming to the Strip,” Reese said. “We’re seeing people we talked to week after week … but we’ve given them our numbers.”

Reese said he considers the team’s efforts a success when people accept resources they’re offered, like being taken to Salvation Army or even accepting a bus pass from the Clark County CARES Housing Assistance team that joins officers on some of their walks.

Officers try to talk to everyone who appears to be living on Las Vegas Boulevard, Reese said.

One man, standing under a tree near the rotunda outside Caesars Palace, told police that he was 32 years old and had been on the streets since he was a child. He blurted out that he had lost friends to suicide.

“I don’t want you to kill yourself,” Henderson told the man. “If you ever see us walking around, ask for help.”

The officers continued south on Las Vegas Boulevard, discussing what to say to people who decline services.

The Salvation Army offers first-come, first-serve housing, with no limit on how many days a person can stay, according to Juan Salinas, director of social services for the Salvation Army of Southern Nevada. There’s free laundry, clothing, showers and lunch every day at 1:30 p.m.

Less than half a mile east on Owens Avenue, Catholic Charities offers breakfast, while the nearby Las Vegas Rescue Mission serves dinner.

“With anybody that comes here, it’s a continuum of care,” Salinas said. “It’s almost warm handoff to us. They call, bring somebody over, check them in and we make sure they have a bed available.”

New residents meet with case managers and housing navigators, who held people find affordable housing, among other providers offering them help getting back on their feet.

Each Thursday, the Nevada Homeless Alliance helps people obtain identification cards, birth certificates and social security cards.

“Sometimes that’s the only thing keeping them from having stable job,” Salinas said.

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.

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