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April 24, 2014

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Volunteers seek out valley’s homeless for census

Number released in April could show increase from economic downturn

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Justin M. Bowen

Lea Alves (left) and Olwyn Pruitt, caseworkers from Straight From the Street, look for homeless early Thursday morning as part of the Las Vegas 2009 Homeless Census and Survey.

2009 Las Vegas Homeless Census

Lea Alves (right) and Olwyn Pruitt, caseworkers from Straight From the Street, head out with Ralph Pittman, a former homeless Las Vegas man, to look for homeless early Thursday morning as part of the Las Vegas 2009 Homeless Census and Survey. Launch slideshow »

By 2 a.m. Thursday, more than 50 volunteers had arrived at the Cambridge Center to help count Las Vegas’ homeless for a mandated census.

Volunteers worked two shifts, at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., and consisted of everyone from UNLV students to those who once were homeless but have left the streets. Guides who once were homeless helped volunteers find locations where people most likely would be staying.

John Connery, of Applied Survey Research, a California-based nonprofit social research firm, said the purpose of the census is not only to get an accurate count of the homeless in the valley, but also to bring light to the issue.

“HUD (Housing and Urban Development) mandates every two years that every county do a census of their own area and they started doing that in ’05, and since then they’ve been doing it every two years,” he said.

Straight from the Streets caseworker Olwyn Pruitt said she wanted to get beyond the census numbers and provide help to those living on the streets.

“We look for everybody that does not have a sanitary place to sleep,” Pruitt said.

Straight from the Streets is an outreach nonprofit organization that works to build a relationship with the homeless to help get them back on their feet. Pruitt said the census will help nonprofits find those who need their help.

“It helps me to see -- because I’m always inside (the office) working for them -- but this is the first time I get to see where these people sleep,” she said. “We see them in the office every day, but to me, it’s just a good thing to see where they sleep, see where they’re coming from.”

Straight from the Streets had helped Pruitt’s guide, Ralph Pittman, get off the streets more than a year ago. Pittman said returning as a volunteer was a blessing.

“I‘ve got my life back. A lot of these people don’t have to be out here; they want to be out here. I wanted to be out here, too, because I had a drug problem, but I got tired,” he said. “It’s a choice. But this program, Straight from the Streets, helped me.”

Straight from the Streets’ assigned census coverage area Thursday morning in Henderson wasn’t where Pittman spent his time when he was homeless, but he knew what signs to look for.

The Straight from the Streets group came up empty Thursday morning during a search for homeless people in its coverage area. It was one of about 50 groups that fanned out across the valley in search of those living on the streets.

Valley-wide numbers from this year’s homeless census are expected to be released in April. Organizers said the economic slump could mean an increase in the number of homeless on the valley’s streets.

“We’ve done this count several times and you can never tell what it will look like until we get the results in April,” Clark County spokeswoman Jennifer Knight said Thursday. “I do believe you have to look at the trends, though, and I think we will see a lot of a first-time homeless this year.”

The last census in 2007 found more than 11,000 people living on the streets of Las Vegas.

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