Las Vegas approves youth homelessness plan. Can it deliver?


Wade Vandervort

People gather outside of the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center near downtown Las Vegas, Friday, May 17, 2019. The facility provides a safe place for the homeless to sleep at night.

Sat, May 18, 2019 (2 a.m.)

The city of Las Vegas signed off this week on the first-ever plan to address youth homelessness in Southern Nevada. But city councilors are skeptical about whether the plan, which is designed to reduce, prevent and eventually end youth homelessness, can deliver on its promises.

The city council, despite concerns from some members about the plan’s financing, voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the plan, a collaborative effort led by the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth with input from public and private organizations throughout the Las Vegas Valley. Councilors also requested that the authors of the plan report back on its progress and as more details get fleshed out.

Arash Ghafoori, executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, and Kathi Thomas-Gibson, director of the city’s Office of Community Services, presented the plan to councilors. It establishes five long-term goals for the region: Identify all unaccompanied homeless youth; establish homelessness prevention strategies and emergency housing; connect homeless youth to services; move homeless youth into permanent housing; and develop “resources, plans, and system capacity” to permanently prevent youth homelessness.

Stakeholders will push for legislative and policy changes at the state and local levels, work on fundraising initiatives and develop new public-private partnerships, among other strategies. The plan, which incorporated ideas from some homeless youth in the area, does not identify a specific timeline for its goals. It had been in development since 2017.

Southern Nevada has the fifth-highest rate of youth homelessness in the United States and the highest rate of unaccompanied youth living unsheltered, Ghafoori said. More than 15,000 homeless young people are currently enrolled in the Clark County School District, and that number is expected to increase to 18,000 by the end of this year.

“This is a huge problem that we have in our community, and if we don’t do anything, homeless youth can feed into every other homeless population: chronic homeless adults, homeless families, etc.,” Ghafoori said.

Although the causes of youth homelessness and homelessness in general may overlap, Thomas-Gibson and Ghafoori said youth living on the streets face unique challenges. Many are still developing physically, emotionally and socially, and have not had a chance to gain work experience or skills needed to live independently. One-third of all teenagers living on the streets will turn to or be lured into prostitution within 48 hours, Ghafoori said.

While building new housing for homeless youth is part of the solution, addressing the persistence of the problem in the region will also require systemic improvements to education, economic opportunities and more, Ghafoori believes.

“Housing is just a foundation. It’s not the solution,” he said.

City councilors said they’re on board with addressing youth homelessness, but some questioned whether the plan offers a clear, realistic path forward.

“This plan is too broad; it’s too open-ended,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman said.

Councilman Bob Coffin expressed frustration about the city’s inability to raise money to directly address homelessness. Under Nevada law, municipalities can’t raise taxes or fees without obtaining approval from the Legislature.

This legislative session, city officials introduced Assembly Bill 73, which would have authorized the city to raise its sewer surcharge in order to increase funding for homeless services. But Assembly Democrats in Carson City modified AB73 last month to instead establish an affordable housing task force in Clark County.

“They stripped the bill for homeless funding,” Coffin said. “I’m still stunned, because everybody gives lip service to homeless [services] for all ages, but nobody wants to pay.”

Ghafoori agreed that more funding is needed to address youth homelessness. But he said that some aspects of the plan can move forward without additional money from local governments.

“This plan identifies both things we could do without funding — that’s policy, that’s bringing people together, that’s better aligning case management and intakes — but also, when the money comes, we still need a plan or a blueprint to make sure the money is equitably doled out to actually, sustainably end youth homelessness,” he said.

Thomas-Gibson noted that the city has already contributed to the plan. She said the city is using philanthropic donations totaling $45,000 to connect homeless youth to the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, community partners or family members if appropriate. The city has also assigned an employee to specifically work with homeless youth.

“But it’s peanuts,” Goodman said. “We need more.”

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