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Staff, volunteer shortages hurting homeless shelters in Las Vegas

Updated August 6, 2021 - 6:10 pm

For about 12 hours each day, Timothy Bartley sits in his worn-down electric wheelchair, trying to find ample shade from a nearby palm tree on Owens Avenue. He tries not to move around much. The wheelchair’s battery won’t last long if he does.

Bartley, a 57-year-old with shaggy blond hair and a weathered face, recalled when that same wheelchair would zoom over sidewalks and carry him across the city. Back then, the chair’s battery would last days. Now, Bartley must save the battery for a short afternoon ride up the concrete ramp to enter the Salvation Army’s overnight shelter.

“It won’t get me up the ramp if I use it up,” Bartley said Thursday. “It goes dead pretty quick.”

The nonprofit, no more than 50 feet away from where Bartley spends about half his day, offers its overnight shelter from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. Most summers, a day shelter would also be provided as an escape from the heat for people like Bartley.

But hiring struggles for the Salvation Army have led to a delay in launching its day shelter that typically begins June 1.

“Now, the only thing I can do to stay out the of heat is get in the shade,” Bartley said.

Based on community surveys over the past 13 months from the nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness, COVID-19 is linked to employee shortages within homeless services. During the latest round of surveys from February to April, 37 percent of shelters and other direct service providers in the U.S. reported COVID-19-related staffing shortages. The November 2020 survey had 70 percent of respondents reporting shortages — the highest number recorded during the survey series. Employees out on leave, missing volunteers and increased demand for services were common survey responses.

Interviews with officials at different shelter providers in Southern Nevada reinforced that hiring is an issue while also revealing other concerns.

Staff shortage

Once opened, the Salvation Army day shelter would offer laundry access, showers, a clothing closet, case management and protection from the heat for about 300 to 450 clients a day.

Director of Social Services Juan Salinas said the shelter is close to the required staffing — eight part-time staffers are needed — but, like other organizations, is struggling with hiring.

“We put up applications, we put up job postings, people show up for orientation, and then they don’t show up for work so we can’t open right now,” Salinas said.

Las Vegas Rescue Mission CEO Heather Engle echoed similar challenges. She said the shelter has been “down quite a bit of staff for a long time” but learned to adapt through the pandemic.

Several shelters said adjustments are vital to continue offering the same services while minimizing contact. That means spreading out beds, adding plexiglass, sterilizing surfaces more frequently, staggering service times, mandating masks and offering services at a distance.

“When we’re dealing with something like a pandemic, an unwritten crisis, we’re writing the solutions every day,” Engle said.

Engle also noted that her shelter has lost out on much-needed volunteers. For the majority of the pandemic, the community dinner became a to-go meal because of a lack of volunteers. The sit-down meals recently started again but are not happening as frequently.

“People are scared, of course, and things just changed, so we’re really looking to restock our volunteers,” Engle said. “Some days we do it, and some days we don’t.”

More newly homeless

Other shelter officials also expressed concerns about an anticipated increase of unhoused people.

Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of community services for the city of Las Vegas, oversees the operation of the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. While overnight numbers for the courtyard are consistent, she said there has been an increase in people using services.

“We’re definitely seeing new people, like people who were not previously in the homeless services system and are newly homeless,” Thomas-Gibson said.

There are 5,083 homeless people in Southern Nevada on any given night, according to the 2021 Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey.

Leslie Carmine, director of media and community relations for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said more people have begun accessing the daytime shelter. Carmine was unsure if the increase could be attributed to COVID-19, but she said people may be going to where the services are open. She added that shelter numbers typically change with weather.

“Anytime we have any type of extreme weather happening, whether wind, rain, heat or cold, those numbers increase,” Carmine said.

’Going to be a whole lot worse’

Abby Quinn, chief community relations officer at Shannon West Homeless Youth Center, noted that increases in homelessness will only worsen the already difficult problem of finding housing in Las Vegas. Quinn said the youth center attempts to find housing for all its clients, but people are still waiting be housed based on Clark County’s “community queue” which dictates housing matches.

The queue considers vulnerability, situation and other factors to determine who receives housing first.

“It’s very difficult right now to find shelter beds, emergency housing,” Quinn said. “We’re having a hard time finding affordable apartments to house clients that are looking to move off the street. Affordable housing is a huge deficit for our town.”

Quinn is also worried about when eviction moratoriums and state rental protections expire. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a new moratorium on evictions, and Nevada passed Assembly Bill 486. Both moves offer temporary protections to renters facing eviction.

Quinn fears the day when that time comes.

“I think it’s going to be a whole lot worse, because a lot of people won’t have the home they’ve been safe in for the last year or so,” she said.

Contact Mathew Miranda at mmiranda@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mathewjmiranda on Twitter.

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