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Churches recruited to assist homeless

In 2003, an advocacy group for the homeless named Las Vegas the “meanest city” in the country because of police sweeps of homeless people and a net loss of shelter space.

On Tuesday, a group of religious leaders, elected officials and business people tried to demonstrate the area doesn’t belong on that list, and they unveiled a new program aimed at getting homeless families in permanent housing quickly — and keeping them there.

“We’re a city that cares for one another,” said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who has been lambasted as pushing aggressive policies against the homeless. “We are a wonderful city because of the people who make up our fabric.”

He was talking to a gathering of the Community Interfaith Council. The group was looking for volunteers and donations for the new “One Congregation, One Family” program. Interest at the meeting was high.

“This is probably the most complex program the Community Interfaith Council has chosen to undertake,” said Pastor Troy Martinez of the East Vegas Christian Center.

The program’s organizers want 12 to 20 churches, synagogues and mosques to commit to helping families graduating from transitional housing programs.

The religious organizations would provide $1,500 to help with deposits, the first month’s rent or emergencies, and volunteer mentors would agree to meet with the family regularly for six months.

The mentors and the family work together on budgets, reaching personal goals and attaining self-sufficiency. A similar program at the Denver Rescue Mission has seen 83 percent of adopted families still in their housing a year after completing the mentoring.

Existing programs in Southern Nevada have success rates of 15 percent to 40 percent, said Jaime Weller-Lafavor, who is taking time off as executive director of Lutheran Social Services to head the new program.

Even after getting help, some people end up back on the street because that help wasn’t reinforced, she said. “The reality is that, without that continued care and support after moving from these programs, these people go back to being homeless. The reality is that there is a service gap.”

That’s what homeless advocates found in Denver when that city’s version of the program started, said Greta Walker, spokeswoman for the Denver Rescue Mission.

“People have been living in a cycle of poverty. They’re trying to overcome significant obstacles that they’ve had in the past that kept them from staying in housing.”

Many families need to learn how to stick to a budget and save for emergencies, Walker said. They also tend to be the working poor. Denver, like Las Vegas, has high housing prices, and many families are one crisis away from not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage.

“One obstacle can throw them into complete homelessness or being on the verge,” she said.

Since September 2005, the Denver Rescue Mission has placed 260 families and seniors into permanent housing. Another 35 are currently on a waiting list for housing, and 135 congregations have volunteered mentoring teams.

While Tuesday’s discussion focused on religious and charitable duties, reducing homelessness can also save money.

Southern Nevada has about 11,500 homeless people, according to a recent census conducted for Clark County. Various entities spend $25 million a year on stopgap items such as shelter and health care that don’t address the chronic nature of homelessness.

That figure doesn’t include the estimated $8.4 million the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition says people give to panhandlers each year.

It would be far better if that money was channeled into programs for the homeless, said Weller-Lafavor and Darryl Martin, assistant Clark County manager and chair of the planning coalition’s homeless committee.

It’s important that the new pilot program is based on grass-roots work by religious organizations, Goodman said.

“They’re able to get commitments which are founded on the right reasons. They’re able to reach folks government is unable to reach.”

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