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April 24, 2014

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THE ECONOMY:

Price of emergency aid from county is a long wait in line

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Sam Morris

Chris Foi waits in line at Clark County Social Service’s Pinto Lane office Friday as the sun comes up. People needing help can spend as long as 14 hours at the office.

Most of them arrive while the skies are still dark, a ritual they will repeat for days.

A father of two who was lured from Detroit by a false promise of work at a Strip resort arrives with his wife and children. A union carpenter and a 24-year-old college-trained bartender join the line.

Another day dawns at 9 Pinto Lane. All five of Clark County Social Service’s offices are burdened, but this is the busiest.

The hundreds lining up against a cement wall outside the office seek help paying the rent or covering health care costs, or both. On some days, more than twice the office’s capacity of about 120 shows up and dozens are told to come back the next day. In April, the agency handled nearly 20,000 requests for help at all its offices, 53 percent more than in January, said Nancy McLane, the agency director.

The jump in numbers is tied to the county’s 10th-in-the-nation unemployment rate, at 10.4 percent in March. The rate was the same in April — with 104,700 people out of work.

McLane says the change facing her agency is not just that more people are seeking help. The people themselves are different. As recently as a year ago, only 5 percent were under 25. Now 15 percent are. That includes recent college graduates and new fathers and mothers, unable to find jobs. There are also more people who are newly out of work, many for the first time.

“We’re seeing a demographic of people who haven’t sought assistance before,” McLane says.

Like Lawrence Paris. On Friday, he pulls up at 4:48 in the morning in his girlfriend’s car. This is his third visit. Three weeks earlier, he spent nearly 14 hours at the office, 4 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. He was told to come back with a letter from his grandmother, to whom he would pay rent if he had a job. The 24-year-old completed a bartending course at CSN in 2007 and worked less than a year before the jobs dried up. Then he made business cards and mixed drinks at private parties for about five months last year.

“Now nobody’s got money to spend on parties,” he says.

Paris hopes to get help with the rent. He put off coming back after that first marathon of a day, but need forced him back. The day before, he waited from 4 to 11 a.m., when a worker told him to return. On Friday, he was number 58.

At 6:20 a.m., the last person in the line stretching along three sides of the building was Rhonda Baker.

Baker had arrived 15 minutes earlier, 2 1/2 hours after boarding a bus near Washington Avenue and Marion Drive. She missed roll call at 5:30, when a guard carrying a clipboard called her number from the day before, 207. So she lost her place, had to start anew. This tried the patience of Baker, who was at the office for rent and medical help, the latter for pancreatitis, which makes it hard for her to stand up. Though the sun had barely been above the horizon an hour, she already seemed too tired to be upset.

Baker, who is 45, was a hostess at a restaurant until she got laid off in July. “I didn’t think I would get sick,” she said, shaking her head.

At the line’s other end, a young couple were unfolding beach chairs with a canopy for shade. Mark Eggert, 33, and his wife, Sara, 37, were still getting used to asking for help, and waiting to get it. Since losing their jobs 10 months ago, they have lost their house, their car and everything in storage. Eggert, a local carpenter’s union member, worked at MGM Mirage’s massive CityCenter project on the Strip. The couple have used up their unemployment benefits.

The Eggerts have two children, 14 and 8 years old, the ages where parents with decent jobs have to decide about buying cell phones, iPods. “They don’t get it,” Sara said, referring to her children’s take on their current situation.

“Last year we never thought we’d be out here,” she added, noting that the couple’s 2007 joint tax return showed income of $110,000.

This was their second day in line, after spending seven hours outside two days earlier. Today they arrived at 4 a.m. Their ticket to getting seen and getting help paying the rent at a weekly apartment was number 224.

McLane said she is concerned about meeting the tide of the needy. The agency projects that demand will rise to 223,463 requests for help in 2010, which would nearly be double the total of 2007. Her current budget is $198 million. The county commission approved a budget May 18 that would lower the amount next year by $3 million. Some of that comes from federal grants, but the budget also depends on property tax revenue, which will almost certainly continue to drop as foreclosures continue apace.

“I wish we could meet demand better,” McLane said, referring to the long lines and the amount of money available to each person in line. “It’s a resource issue.”

McLane doesn’t have the budget to hire more staff to meet the demand. Instead she has taken other measures to keep lines moving, including:

• Keeping offices open until 7 p.m. at least two weeks a month. This started in December and has cost the agency $130,000 so far.

• Calling state welfare or federal Social Security offices for certain information, instead of sending clients home when they don’t have paperwork from those agencies.

• Helping homeless clients even if they don’t have identification, at least on their first visit.

She also hopes to have a new computer system online in the next year. The county paid $12 million for it in early 2008, to replace a 15-year-old system.

Ironically, a projected increase in demand of 20 percent from this year to next gives her some hope. That would be a third less than the projected increase from last year to this one.

Of course, she “would much rather not have so much need.”

Outside 9 Pinto Lane, hundreds would agree. Many complain about the wait, the uncertainty, the system of numbers and clipboards that is hard to decipher. Several grouse about what they say is less-than-courteous treatment from security guards, the first face of the agency for most. McLane said she gives detailed guidelines to Special Operations Associates Inc., the company that provides the guards, and has asked that several be removed from the job for treating clients badly.

Karl Dooley stood near the front of the line on Friday. He held number 13. “I don’t believe in bad luck,” he said with a smile.

Dooley, jobless for the first time since graduating from college in 1976, needs help paying the rent. He understands the current downturn better than many of the people standing behind him because of his former line of work: mortgage loan officer. Still, he noted with a loud laugh, “That don’t make a difference. I’m in line, too!”

He has a plan for the rest of his day, when his time inside the social service office is over.

He holds a manila folder with the word “resumes” written in ink across the flap.

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