Sense

Corridor of Hope

Using Social Media to Facilitate Social Outreach

By Joshua Ellis

Las Vegas has a homelessness problem.

According to the 2017 Homeless Census conducted by Clark County Social Services, nearly 4400 people in the Valley were “unhoused,” or sleeping on the streets.

They stay in vacant lots, in the dirt between the sidewalks and the cemeteries that lie along the “Corridor Of Hope” by Las Vegas Boulevard and Foremaster. They’re moved along by the police at dawn and tolerated after dusk on public property. On private property — such as the empty lot on the northeast corner of LV and Owens, where a few dozen people had set up a small tent city — their camps are bulldozed and their few possessions destroyed, often with no warning.

A lot of the people on the street are addicts of some kind or another; a lot of them are mentally ill. And some of them are just people who’ve fallen through the cracks — people who’ve lost their ID, for example. Without ID, it’s impossible to get work or a place to live — but without a place to live, it’s nearly impossible to get a replacement ID, or keep yourself presentable enough to go on job interviews, or even get enough sleep or food to be coherent if you do. The shelters and services and charities here work at capacity, but it’s simply not enough — there is an incredible lack of mental health resources in the Vegas Valley, for example, and not nearly enough beds in our shelters. And getting into shelters or programs can be a slow, daunting, and humiliating process at the best of times. For someone who’s battling mental illness or addiction, it can be a hopeless task.

In 2003, I co-wrote a series of stories for the Las Vegas CityLife weekly with my editor, Matthew O’Brien, about the people who were living in the city’s large, labyrinthine and usually dry, storm drains. Since then, I’ve continued to pay attention to the growing numbers of homeless in the county. When East Fremont and the surrounding areas began to gentrify in 2012, many of the cheap weekly motels, where poor people lived, were bought up and repurposed or — more often — left vacant while the new owners tried to figure out what to do with them. The camps north of the I-95 got bigger. Tents and makeshift shelters began to pop up all along Charleston and Maryland Parkway. I talked about it to whomever would listen.

Around the beginning of this year, I decided to stop talking about it and actually do something.

After talking to homeless people to find out what sorts of things they needed that they couldn’t usually get through charities, I made a list: flashlights, hand sanitizers, socks, gloves, hats, feminine hygiene products — little things, but important. I created an Amazon wishlist, similar to a wedding registry, which allowed my 3600+ Facebook friends to purchase items that would get shipped directly to my door. Those friends got in on the action, finding items cheaper and suggesting stuff neither I nor the homeless folks would think of.

I posted the list. A couple of days later, the boxes began to arrive — sometimes a dozen a day, filled with stuff bought by people around the world. That week, I made a couple of dozen “gift bags” out of my leftover Walmart grocery bags, each one with a flashlight, hand sanitizers, a couple of pairs of chemical handwarmers, a pair of socks, gloves, some included tampons and maxi-pads.…everything I’d gotten. And I loaded them in my truck and headed down to the lot to hand them out.

Since then, I’ve gotten several volunteers who help me do this each week. We’ve been going to several camps around the city — one in Commercial Center at Sahara and Maryland, one off of Russell near Boulder Highway in Henderson.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a coder, and while I’m not a fan of Silicon Valley tech-bro capitalism, I have the Silicon Valley mindset of experimenting and tinkering with ideas. For example, I’ve been designing a cheap handcart made of scrounged bike parts and cheap lumber that could replace the shopping carts homeless people use to store and move their goods, which are usually stolen and which police will confiscate. We’ve also been experimenting with running a sort of “guerrilla” trash brigade, picking up trash from the camps to try and give police and NIMBY neighbors one less thing to complain about; a couple of weeks ago, in a bid to keep them from being pushed out, we took four truckloads out of the Russell camp.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and early in March their camp was destroyed and the residents scattered, with no clear plan of what to do next. Wherever they go, they get moved along, in a day or a month. They are forced to live like nomads.

I’m under no illusion that we’re doing anything more than putting bandages on bullet wounds. We can’t get these people into housing... but we can make being homeless just the tiniest bit less horrible.

Some people think we’re “enabling” these people to stay homeless, but that’s ridiculous. Nobody wants to be homeless. They may not be ready to sober up, they may not be capable of dealing with the endless red tape of trying to get help from programs, but nobody wants to sleep in the dirt under a layer of cardboard. Giving them a cheap stick of deodorant isn’t going to keep them in the street, but it might help them feel human enough to want to try to get out of it.

If you’d like to help, you can buy items from our wishlist at http://a.co/gbx74kh and they’ll get delivered to the people that need them. You can also join our Facebook group to volunteer or learn how to do this stuff yourself at https://www.facebook.com/groups/stainlesssteelratsociety/.

If we keep waiting for others to fix things, they’ll never get fixed; we have to fix them ourselves. We can’t always change the world, but we can make it a little better for someone who needs that... and maybe that’s enough.

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