As the makeshift tent city in downtown’s homeless corridor grows, so does the tension between two groups who share the same goal: to help the homeless.
On one side are long-established shelters that feed and house hundreds of homeless while also trying to lure them into programs that could help get them off the street for good.
On the other are freelance good Samaritans, church groups and small nonprofits, who from the backs of cars and trucks distribute food, tents and other supplies directly to the homeless.
The former say that by doling out food, the freelancers remove much of the incentive homeless people have to get other help, including job training, as well as addiction and mental health treatment.
The homeless are "literally coming out of their tents for sandwiches, then going right back into their tents," said Phillip Hollon, residential services director for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which operates a shelter and soup kitchen in the corridor. "When food is right in front of them, they are not reaching out for services across the street."
The freelancers say they just want to help, to make sure homeless people don’t go hungry or cold. They say that if shelters were meeting the needs of the homeless, they wouldn’t have to.
Finally, they say, simply feeding people doesn’t discourage them from getting other kinds of help or keep them living on the street.
"I don’t think my bologna sandwich is going to influence someone’s life decisions," said Michael Swecker, the 29-year-old co-founder of Homeless Helpers, a small group of volunteers who hand out sandwiches and hygiene products four nights a week in the corridor.
HELPING OR HURTING?
Each side accuses the other of only the best intentions.
"What would we do without them?" Swecker said of the shelters.
"There is something altruistic about it," Sue Markham, director of homeless services for the Salvation Army on Owens Avenue, said about those who hand out food on the street.
But, Markham continued, "there are an awful lot of homeless people in the corridor who are not availing themselves of the services and programs we have to offer. We’re perpetuating that by going to the street and bringing food, clothing and tents to them. I think we make it very easy for them to say, ‘Well, I’m perfectly fine right here. I don’t need the services of agencies.’"
Feeding people on the street also is dangerous, Markham said. More than 100 homeless people got sick recently after eating burritos that were handed out. People also dart in and out of traffic to get the food.
"We don’t need to see people hit by vehicles," Markham said.
Other "unintended consequences" result from the feedings, said Shannon West, regional homeless services coordinator for Clark County.
"We have the consistent trash and debris, with all the food containers," she said. "People throw boxes of clothes out of their cars. Stuff is strewn everywhere."
City of Las Vegas crews regularly clean up the litter, urine and feces in the corridor while the homeless pack up their belongings or have them hauled off by the authorities. This has the city in an endless loop, Councilman Ricki Barlow complained in March.
The city tried to ban feeding homeless people in city parks several years ago, but a federal judge ruled the ban unconstitutional.
An estimated 10 percent of the valley’s homeless congregate in the corridor. About 1,000 people stay in shelters there, while just over 100 sleep on the corridor’s streets each night, West said.
About two dozen tents were lined up on the sidewalks on Foremaster Lane and Main Street on Wednesday evening, with about 100 people in the nearby area.
Those who work with the homeless don’t think their numbers have increased despite the dismal economy, because people are doubling up with family and friends and taking advantage of emergency rental assistance.
But those who want to help the less fortunate, especially in a down economy, often drop off more tents and supplies to homeless people in the corridor, making the problem appear worse than it is, social services workers say.
MEETING A NEED
Agencies and social services workers say there’s a solution that allows people to help without endangering anyone, trashing the area or enabling the homeless to remain on the street: donate clothing, non-perishable food items or funds to established charities.
"If your efforts and interests are truly to help end homelessness, you would partner your feeding with someone who’s helping to get jobs and housing," West said.
But Swecker said groups such as his meet needs that the downtown agencies miss. Homeless Helpers offers food at night to those who might be working or searching for work during the day, he said.
Area shelters serve meals at set times throughout the day, but the last scheduled meal for those who come in off the street is at 5 p.m. at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission. Those who return to the corridor later don’t get fed, Swecker said, forcing them to choose between eating and working.
Swecker referenced a 2007 homeless census that found about 15 percent of the valley’s estimated 11,400 homeless were employed either part or full time.
Several people who took sandwiches Wednesday evening said they often missed scheduled meals while looking for work or taking care of other business, such as trying to get new identification or applying for aid.
"If you’re out looking for work, they’re all closed," said Dale Roberts, 43, referring to the shelters’ dining rooms.
Roberts said he has been homeless about four months and has only been able to find an occasional day labor job.
James Baker, 42, said he missed Wednesday’s last shelter meal because he was donating plasma. He planned to use $8 of the $30 he got for the plasma to rent a bed for the night at the Salvation Army. Without Homeless Helpers, he said, he wouldn’t have had any dinner.
Swecker also referenced a "gap analysis" from the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s Committee on Homelessness that listed "meals for homeless persons seeking employment or applying for other community services" as a problem because the meals "are offered before 7 p.m., which means that individuals doing business during business hours may miss both lunch and dinner for that day."
But West said the analysis is several years old and "access to food in the corridor isn’t an issue."
She pointed out that the Salvation Army has a cafe, open daily until 7 p.m., that accepts food stamps or tokens that can be handed out to people on the street instead of food.
West also said those living on the street in the corridor probably aren’t working.
"Most of the folks working are actually living in shelters," she said.
MORE THAN JUST SURVIVAL
Sharon Mann, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, said that in addition to its 200 emergency shelter beds, the agency has 250 beds in its "resident work" program that helps men find jobs.
The program provides sack lunches for those who work and always has vacancies, probably because of rules that prohibit alcohol and drug use and require residents to be in by about 10 p.m., she said.
The Shade Tree shelter for women and children on Owens provides sack lunches or alternate meal times for women who work.
"If they come back at 8 or 9 at night, we’ll provide them a late dinner here," said Marlene Richter, executive director. "There’s no choice between working and eating. It’s, ‘How many different ways can we help you?’"
But Richter doesn’t think those who offer food to the homeless outside necessarily are keeping them from seeking shelter help.
"The challenge is getting them to want to come into shelter," she said. "We’re talking about mental health issues, the lack of hope. They’re so full of despair that a shelter doesn’t matter to them."
Such people have only enough energy to focus on basic survival, said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets outreach program that has been working with the valley’s homeless for decades.
They aren’t likely to leave the homeless corridor because their basic needs are met there, she said.
Offering food and supplies to the homeless doesn’t motivate them to make the changes necessary to get off the street, she said.
"It helps them accept the idea that this is as good as it gets," she said. "The goal of anybody who works with the homeless population should always be to end that plight, not to make it more comfortable."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.