Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2014

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Las Vegas wants homeless included in 2000 census

John Crowley stretched out on the sidewalk in front of the MASH Village homeless shelter and sighed.

For two years, the middle-aged man has been living in shelters and on the streets.

The city of Las Vegas -- the lead local government in conducting the area's census -- is planning to make sure that Crowley along with every other homeless person in the Las Vegas Valley is counted during the 2000 census.

A budget of $45,850 is anticipated, using contributions from Las Vegas, Clark County, Henderson and North Las Vegas. Part of the budget will be used to hire people to fan out all over the valley and count the homeless.

Additionally, 500 homeless people will be selected for a survey of their needs, background and reason for being homeless.

Developing accurate figures on the number of homeless people is important because the federal government determines how much funding an area receives for social service programs based on those numbers, said John Schlegal, assistant director of the Clark County Department of Comprehensive Planning. Schlegal also noted that the census determines how many representatives Nevada will have in Congress.

The counting job will not be easy.

"Homeless people are difficult to count. If someone asked me if I was homeless, I'd tell them the truth. But a lot of people with families are so ashamed they wouldn't tell the truth," Crowley said.

But Ken Johnson, manager of the Las Vegas Census Office, said he is optimistic there will be an accurate homeless count.

"The plan is to count every single homeless person in the community," he said. "If we have enough workers out there counting we can do it. It will all be in one 24- or 48-hour blitz."

The count will take place sometime before April 1, said Sharon Segerblom, director of the Neighborhood Services Department for the city of Las Vegas.

"It is very important that we have an accurate count of how many homeless people are out there so we can do a better job of providing services to them," she said. "The city of Las Vegas alone spent $2 million to help the homeless last year. We hear a lot of numbers bandied around, but we really don't know how many people are out there."

Social service agencies estimate there are 17,000 homeless people in the Las Vegas Valley.

"That's a consensus number that all of the different charities feel fairly comfortable with," Sumner Dodge, spokesman for the Salvation Army, said. "But we really don't know how many homeless people are out there."

While Johnson said he does not know how many workers will be needed to do the homeless count, he said the plan now is to primarily use UNLV students.

This plan has major problems, said Ken Robinson, director of MASH Village, a Las Vegas homeless shelter and outreach center.

"Homeless people live in some pretty scary and dangerous places. I have a hard time seeing a bunch of college students, who don't have much experience working with the homeless population, going out and counting all of these people," he said.

Johnson said area social service agencies will advise his office about ways to locate people living on the streets.

But Marlene Richter, director of social services for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said she is skeptical that the census will accurately count the homeless population.

"People like to think all homeless people are in shelters. That is just not the case," she said. "I would guess that maybe half of the homeless population is actually being served by social service agencies. This is a population of survivors. They are very good at hiding."

Dodge said he, too, is skeptical that an accurate count of the homeless can be made.

"Homeless people live in hundreds of places -- nobody knows where all of those places are. They are an incredibly difficult group to locate," he said.

"In some cities back in 1990 the census takers did a horrible job. They just went into homeless shelters one night and counted how many people were there. They then said that was how many homeless people there were."

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