For those who attended the May 18 public input session at the Boulder City Senior Center, which asked residents “What keeps you up at night?” one may have walked away thinking homelessness was the top issue facing Boulder City.
Granted, it was touted as being one to discuss homelessness, health and hunger. But when the moderator went around to each table, a designated spokesperson for almost each one said homelessness is the top issue right now facing the community.
So, is homelessness in Boulder City as big of an issue as some may think? If so, how many are there?
While the answers may vary greatly depending on who one asks, the Boulder City Hospital, as well as Boulder City fire and police departments began an initiative in early July to help gain a clearer picture on the issue.
Jennifer Hedland, community resource liaison for the Boulder City Hospital, and Walt West, fire analyst with the Boulder City Fire Department who heads up the department’s community outreach, have been working closely together on the homeless issue.
“We started the outreach two weeks ago,” West said last Wednesday. “The people we’ve spoken to have been here, off and on, for quite a while. We’re in the early stages of outreach, so it’s difficult to gauge the issue right now.”
Those they have made contact with have been asked what it is they need and how they can be helped.
“We may have a better idea in the next couple of months once all the data is collected,” Hedland said. “I know the citizens feel it’s growing, based on what I’ve heard from the community. They’re seeing more homeless people around town.”
As of Tuesday of this week, they had made contact with 11 individuals who were determined to be homeless, a few of whom they have met with more than once.
“Three of them actually have jobs,” West said. “One is working full time and the other two do temporary work. Everyone we’ve spoken to has been very pleasant. When asked how we can help, they’ve all said, ‘No, I’m good, I have everything I need.’ A lot of them have said they’re out here because they feel safe.”
West, like Hedland, said it’s still too early to know the extent of the issue or the number of homeless, especially in July as the temperatures have hovered at, or above, 110 degrees.
When they come upon homeless individuals, they are offered water, basic essentials and referrals to get assistance, which includes employment. Hedland said shelters are mentioned but many avoid them out of fear.
West, who has been with the department and lived in two for 23 years, said there are more homeless people in Boulder City than in the past.
“It’s just my personal opinion, and not that of a firefighter, it’s not at an epidemic level like it is in Las Vegas,” he said. “When asked how they are getting money, not one said panhandling. I haven’t noticed that here in Boulder City.”
Both said that when they make contact with these individuals, mostly in city parks, they are very vague when saying where they sleep at night or where they have made camp.
Most have said, “I’m staying where I feel safe,” West said.
They have heard that some stay in the campground down by the lake but come into town during the day while others have made encampments in the desert. And, just one of the people they have spoken to has a car.
At that May meeting, many spoke about concerns for their own safety, the lack of resources in town for homeless and the concern the issue may get worse. Hedland and West both said they by no means want to downplay a person’s concerns but that the people they have had contact with so far do not appear to be dangerous. That said, they agreed that a large percentage of the homeless in the country deal with mental illness.
“We’re trying to build a base so that we can determine what we need to focus our energy on,” West said. “The number of resources we have is finite but also very broad. We want to hone in on what this population needs.”
Hedland said the Nevada Homeless Alliance has offered its assistance in any way it can, whether that’s housing, medical or employment.
“There are some, however, who don’t want any kind of assistance and in that case, coming up with a number may be difficult,” she said. “Building a rapport and trust with a homeless individual is important. But, it takes 17 to 32 encounters with a homeless person for them to trust you. So, the more Walt and I are out there, hopefully the more willing they will be to accept some help.”
Law enforcement’s take
Boulder City Police Chief Tim Shea said that Boulder City, like most cities across the nation, has seen an increase in people experiencing homelessness, but not at the same rate as larger communities.
“The numbers we have, relative to other areas around the valley, are very small,” he said. “We know of 10 people at this time. Because our numbers are so small, when they do become visible, their presence can become magnified. This year, most of the complaints we received were about very visible individuals whose behaviors may have looked ‘abnormal,’ but typically did not rise to a violation of law.”
Shea said there is no law or ordinance that prohibits sleeping in a park, however, no one may do so during the hours a park is closed.
“Being in a state of homelessness does not negate these restrictions,” he said. “Recent federal court decisions mandate we do not criminalize some behaviors under some very specific circumstances. When dealing with someone in a state of homelessness, the courts have restricted enforcement of some nuisance-type laws on public property, when the activity is that one must engage in to survive, coupled with them not having reasonable access to services, such as a shelter.”
Since there are no shelters in Boulder City, nor any within 15 miles of the city, there is no reasonable access to services when the police department encounter those who may need assistance. City officials have been meeting with other jurisdictions in the area to form partnerships and learn more about their various ordinances addressing these issues, Shea said.
“Our officers have been doing referrals, providing short-distance rides, travel, meal and lodging vouchers, and in some cases, at their own expense, providing meals and overnight lodging for years,” he said. “We will continue to do so as long as the need exists. Homelessness has existed since the founding of the city, and no doubt will continue for the foreseeable future.”