Tensions over newly enacted Las Vegas homeless ordinance flare up at legislative forum for seniors

A member of the Nevada Silver Haired Legislative Forum was abruptly dismissed from a meeting when she kept pressing a Clark County social services manager about the impact of Las Vegas ordinances outlawing sitting and sleeping in public, and whether the new laws have affected homeless clients’ ability to access social services.

The forum member, Marilyn Jordan, persisted with the question at the Wednesday meeting of the interim committee until Forum President John Yacenda put an end to it. The committee, made up of seniors who focus on issues related to aging and make recommendations to the Legislature, had invited Social Services Manager Michele Fuller-Hallauer to present on contributing factors and challenges of addressing senior homelessness.

Of 352 people surveyed in the 2019 Southern Nevada homeless census, 28 percent self-identified in the 51 to 60 age group, and 14 percent were classified as 61 years old or older. So in that survey sample of more than 5,500 homeless people in the region, 42 percent were above the age 50.

“You’re assuming she can’t answer the question,” Jordan said to Yacenda. “The homeless people that are on the street being moved to different locations — are they not eligible for services?”

Fuller-Hallauer clarified that she works for Clark County and did not have data ready about whether the city ordinances had affected the “number of clients accessing services at the front doors of the social services office.”

Unsatisfied, Jordan rephrased her question four times at which point Yacenda interjected that she was “out of order” and dismissed her from the meeting.

Criminal penalties for Las Vegas’ encampment ordinance went into effect this month, making sitting and sleeping in public spaces in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods punishable by $1000 fine or arrest. Jordan wanted to know whether homeless people had experienced additional barriers to accessing services, as a result of being displaced in order to abide by the law.

Jordan is not alone in voicing concerns about whether the encampment ordinance connects homeless people with services, as the City Council and officials say it is intended to. The encampment and the second “sidewalk cleaning” law, which applies the same criminal penalties for designated areas, have caused a stir among local governments, regional service providers, commercial interests and activists in Southern Nevada’s homelessness issue. 

During her presentation, Fuller-Hallauer told the committee that last year, more than 1,000 seniors aged 50 to 64 in Southern Nevada accessed homeless services through street outreach teams or through the city-operated Courtyard Homeless Resources Center. Almost 1,000 seniors used emergency shelters in 2019.

“We don’t know a whole lot about … the senior population who are experiencing homelessness,” Fuller-Hallauer said. “We need to focus our efforts on addressing and ending homelessness so that we don’t have a population of people experiencing homelessness that age into a population of seniors experiencing homelessness.”

Social services estimates say that the Nevada population of homeless people 51 or older has been at an annual average of 5,800 since 2017.

Fuller-Hallauer attributed the issue to a lack of available affordable housing, an area in which Nevada ranks worst in the nation with just 19 affordable housing units per 100 households that need them, compared to a national average of 37. Las Vegas ranks even lower than the state average, with 14 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income households.

“We absolutely need affordable housing for people who are 30 percent and below the area median income … If we can’t build these properties to support folks at or below [this income level], then we need housing subsidies, housing choice vouchers or some type of ongoing subsidy to supplement rent on an ongoing basis,” Fuller-Hallauer said.

The presentation also detailed Clark County’s plan to open 728 senior affordable housing units in 2020, and 195 additional units in a senior housing complex that was announced last year.