On the street, an endless struggle to bring homeless addicts in from the cold

In the cool shadows of the Flamingo Wash, the water gurgling through the flood channel under Maryland Parkway sounded almost like a mountain stream flowing. Although it wasn’t a bucolic creekside, it was a campsite of sorts for a half dozen homeless drug addicts who bundled against the chill as they slept through a cloudless day and killed time between connections.

That’s where I met Jess, a street tough but articulate 24-year-old meth user, who was willing to share a first-hand perspective about substance abuse among Southern Nevada’s homeless population. There’s a lot of it, and it’s one area that complicates the homeless issue.  A study by the National Coalition for the Homeless found 38 percent of people surviving on the street suffer from alcohol dependency with another 26 percent addicted to drugs.

Homeless advocates and dedicated counselors such as those from the local nonprofit Shine A Light, which specializes in working with the souls who survive in the flood channels and tunnels that crisscross the valley, would say those estimates are low. Whether it’s methamphetamine, heroin, or alcohol abuse, addiction and its related mental and emotional conditions challenge public officials and social service providers as they battle to provide care to lost souls surviving on the lowest end of Las Vegas.

“Really it’s our choice, you know?” Jess said without self-pity. “If we were in the right state of mind to actually get sober and get a job it would be easy, but you’re not going to find any sober people out here. I’m just being honest, you know what I mean?”

Authorities certainly do. Addicts come from all walks of life, but by the time they wind up on the street they can be some of the most difficult cases to reach.

Addiction’s pull is stronger than a river current, strong enough to make a person sleep under a bridge, and much worse. You might imagine they’d be itching to escape. Not so.

Jess knows from personal experience how difficult it can be to get sober and stay there. It’s nothing to be taken lightly, and it can be fleeting.

“I’ve done it before,” Jess said as the stream to nowhere flowed by. “I’ve got sober and went and got myself out of this situation and into a program.”

The problem is staying the course. A single setback can mean one step forward followed by a dozen steps back.  Each slip can make it harder to rise the next time. If the task can be herculean to those who can afford private rehabilitation programs, it’s harder still for the destitute. Like every other aspect of the local homeless story, the need for rehabilitation services is greater than their availability.

Las Vegas officials may have further complicated matters when they followed the lead of several dozen other cities and voted in November to outlaw so-called “street camping” in many public places if emergency shelter bed space is available. Homeless advocates and several Democratic Party presidential candidates roundly criticized the move, but Jess appreciated the frustration on both sides of the issue.

“I don’t think it would be a bad thing for it to be illegal, per se,” Jess said, “but the people who are in the wrong state of mind at the moment who aren’t able to seek help, that would be tragic for them …  It’s always something that’s more important to them than what should be the normal life, you know? They set everything aside for that. I know because I’m in the same boat.”

Some come to the street with substantial substance abuse issues. Others acquire them there. Often the substance abuse issues are coupled with mental and emotional health issues. No matter the origin, getting sober is a lot tougher when you’re off society’s grid and living in its shadows.

Jess, for instance, struggled with meth addiction while living in California, got sober for a while after moving to Southern Nevada, but relapsed a few months ago and his been surviving on the street ever since: “Four years ago my mom passed away, and in a series of unfortunate events I lost the rest of my family, and it was just tragic. … I’ve been going back and forth, being sober and having a job and getting my shit together.”

While squatting under a bridge beneath Maryland Parkway next to a polluted runoff authorities say teems with every form of filth and waiting for a visit from the meth man, Jess tried to sound optimistic and almost pulled it off. “Like, all the people I meet, I have faith in all of them if they absolutely needed to get their shit together and get a job that they’re fully capable. It just starts with their mentality.”

The water flowing by filled the silence a moment with a sound that should have been beautiful. Then Jess spoke again.

“Every time you relapse, it gets harder. It really does.”

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith