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‘That guy is not OK’: Las Vegas nonprofit helps homeless during extreme heat

A man with dark sores covering his face limped along the side of Mountain Vista Street in the triple-digit heat Tuesday.

“Hold on. We gotta do something real quick. That guy is not OK,” said Louis Lacey, director of HELP of Southern Nevada, as he made a U-turn and pulled over on the Las Vegas street.

After handing the man a bottle of water, Lacey quickly called in the rest of the HELP team members, who helped the man get to the Jack in the Box down the road, where he was scheduled to meet people.

Ideally, Lacey said, he would have liked to help the man access services, but he knows he cannot force people to do so.

“We’re only doing one thing today, and that is making sure that people are receiving lifesaving services,” he told a Review-Journal reporter and a photographer during a ride-along with Lacey.

He and around five team members from HELP — a nonprofit dedicated to helping people access programming and assistance — drove to different homeless encampments from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, handing out water and hygiene products and calling for medical aid when needed, just as they do every time the temperature exceeds 110 degrees.

The team also handed out flyers with information on cooling centers, and helped take people to the centers or shelters. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m., the temperature had already exceeded 105 degrees. By late Tuesday afternoon, it reached 119, just one degree shy of the valley’s all-time high of 120 degrees, a record set Sunday.

As heat reaches record highs, the number of unhoused people in Clark County also has soared. The population has increased by more than 1,300 in the past year alone, with at least 7,928 recorded during the January point-in-time count compared with 6,566 counted in 2023.

With nothing — or a tent if they are lucky — between them and the scorching sun, homeless people are disproportionately affected by the heat. At least 62 people were reported to have died last year from heat alone, according to Lacey, and several others suffered serious pavement burns and injuries.

“The heat is amazing. I’ve never seen it this hot, and I’ve been here since 1972. It’s been hot, yes, but something on this magnitude, no,” Lacey said.

The prevalence of alcohol and drugs on the street only exacerbates the risk — with alcohol dehydrating people, and the rising popularity of fentanyl and Xylazine contributing to deaths. Down in the 500 miles of tunnels in Las Vegas, where Lacey estimates 500 to 1,000 people live, it may be cooler, but drugs, violence and monsoon risks also present their own dangers.

‘I know I need to get out of this’

As HELP stopped at different homeless encampments — mainly located in open, unshaded sandlots — throughout the valley Tuesday, they were greeted with smiles and hugs from people who had worked with them before. One man accepted a ride to a nearby shelter, while several others accepted water but were resistant to shelters.

“I don’t like the shelters. To me, a shelter would make me feel smaller than what I am,” Tamra Christian, 40, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I’ve dealt with the people, and I know I’m better than that. They talk to me like I’m less than.”

Christian has been homeless for most of her life since age 15 and lives with her partner in an encampment off North Boulder Highway.

“This is all I know,” she said.

She is trying to get her partner into a program to help him and to find housing for herself.

“I need to get out of this,” she said.

‘Just trying to survive’

Derryl Walker has been homeless for 12 years and has lived under the bridge by Mountain Vista Street and East Russell Road for about a year. He accepted water bottles from HELP but told the Review-Journal he does not typically go to established cooling centers or shelters, choosing instead to go to local businesses where he has established good relationships with the owners.

On Tuesday morning, Walker was “bulldozed out” — or told to leave his spot — and moved across the street.

“We’re just trying to survive. That’s all we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to cause any problems. As a matter of fact, the reason I’m under the bridge is because I try to appreciate the fact that ‘out of sight out of mind.’ I don’t wanna be an eyesore,” Walker said.

He was grateful for what HELP had done, but he lamented that the organization can only do so much.

“Metro doesn’t catch any slack,” Walker said. “They’ll come out and start yelling.”

Homeless since 2017, Erik Smith dug a hole in the sand where he set up a tent for his shelter. He has had difficulty obtaining a Nevada ID because of misplacing his documents. HELP workers noted that they can help him with that problem.

Another woman nearby, who asked to remain anonymous to keep her family from learning her status, had a decorated corner section with pink furniture and umbrellas to stay cool. Her friend had just moved from Oakland, California, where she said they are much nicer to homeless people.

The women arranged to meet with HELP the following day to discuss housing opportunities, a key component of the organization’s goal of meeting with people multiple times and following up on services.

“Just because someone says no today doesn’t mean tomorrow they won’t call,” Lacey said.

Contact kfutterman@reviewjournal.com.

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