Credit: Vegas Stronger

Vegas Stronger Starts by Asking Businesses to Call Them, Instead of Police

Fight homelessness with coordinated care and services for those experiencing substance use or mental health crises.

Story by Jessica Kantor

Published on

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A man stands at the center of a surrounding circle of people. To his left, police officers. To his right, shopping center security. Behind, business shop owners. He’s trapped, he’s anxious, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get out of this situation. Those around him notice that he’s muttering to no one in particular.

While everyone waits to figure out what the next move is, another man walks up to the tense situation. He’s just stepped out of a large SUV and is wearing a tailored suit. He calmly and sternly states, “This guy is coming with me to get some help,” and all parties involved, including the man experiencing homelessness at the center, agree that this is what’s going to happen. The man gets inside the SUV and is taken to a service provider facility down the block. He immediately gets a shower, hot food, a bed for the night and any night thereafter, as well as a host of clinical services.

The man at the triangle center is one of dozens of people experiencing homelessness that stay in this particular residential area within central Las Vegas. The man in the suit is Dave Marlon, cofounder of the nonprofit Vegas Stronger. The shopping center is the chosen spot for their new initiative: Restoring Rancho.

Vegas Stronger aims to eradicate homelessness in Vegas through alternative policing methods. They start by addressing the major issues of the most vulnerable population: substance abuse and mental health. The services the man received are considered to be “true diversion” initiatives that provide an array of care to individuals that are taken off the street, instead of being cited or arrested. The nonprofit launched in October 2020, and their Restoring Rancho initiative has been running for only two months, but it already has support from the local City Council, business owners in the area, and the Metropolitan Police Department. Restoring Rancho starts with the local residents and business owners. Vegas Stronger asks them to do two simple things:

  • Do not provide food or money to individuals experiencing homelessness. The reason is that they are concerned even something that seems small and helpful, like providing food or one dollar, gives people continued reasons not to accept and use the services available, which they believe can provide true help and a long-term plan to get them off of the streets.
  • Do not call the police; instead call Vegas Stronger to come and intervene.

Once someone calls for help, an intervention is conducted. Once they have permission to bring someone in for care, they take them to Crossroads of Southern Nevada, one of several partners in the initiative. They see a nurse first, to check their vitals and assure they’re safe. Following a clean bill of health, they get showered, fresh clothes, a hot meal, and a clean bed. If during the medical assessment, they need to detox, that is provided for them along with coordination of substance use treatments.

“We do a full medical evaluation with the nurse, a psychiatric assessment with our psychiatrist, and a clinical assessment with our Master’s level licensed clinician,” says Marlon. “Finally we have them meet with a case manager for a review and that’s where we make sure they have proper ID, sign them up for Medicaid, and start looking into long-term housing and even job possibilities. They stay with us for as long as they need while we coordinate long-term housing.”

Marlon notes that he sees an improvement in their mood and demeanor after they are showered and fed.

“Many of these people, when we come out to meet them, put on a tough and scary act because that’s how they’ve learned to protect themselves,” Marlon says. “Once you have a conversation with many of them, I’ve personally learned that much of the time we’re not dealing with substance abuse or mental health specifically like we thought. It’s a trifecta for most, but the main diagnosis we’re dealing with is a learning disability, which is in a similar field but a different approach is needed.”

It seems like a clear-cut path from taking the individual experiencing homelessness off the street to providing them the services listed above. However, a look behind the curtain shows a puzzle of contracts and community partnerships that fit together semi-snugly.

Vegas Stronger is:

  • contracted with the county to provide crisis stabilization and housing for a limited number of beds;
  • licensed with the state to be a Medicare provider;
  • contracted with insurance companies such as Anthem and United Healthcare to provide healthcare and substance abuse treatment for clients;
  • contracted with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Law Enforcement Intervention for Mental Health and Addiction program (LIMA) to provide beds for clients and be a “metro drop off” location;
  • partnered with the City Council in the area to provide literature to business owners and residents that recommends calling them for homeless interventions;
  • contracted with the county who is contracted with other organizations to provide long-term housing.

If this sounds like a lot of hoops that have to be jumped through in order to provide basic services to people experiencing homelessness, it is. A limitation that Marlon details is that the process is extremely bureaucratic and inflexible. You have to know what contacts in what offices to speak to about contracts. You have to apply for and get the contract, possibly taking it away from another organization who may or may not be doing a decent job. You have to make sure all of your ducks are in a row, as they say, when applying.

Marlon notes that before Vegas Stronger could even begin helping people, they had to have a full staff on payroll, including psychiatric care, and a proper location. The average nonprofit that aims to help the community does not often have these resources to get launched, funded, and then provide services that will actually help people. Vegas Stronger’s total operating budget for their first year is estimated to be $1.35 million.

“I realize that part of the issue with this homeless epidemic is that there’s no one who is truly empowered and educated about the whole process,” Marlon says. “The government has loosely tried to address this before but it has been unsuccessful, as evidenced by the 15,000 homeless in the little city of Vegas. It’s very clear to anyone that we have not figured this out.”

“We’re really just trying to address the issues of homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse before it hits the criminal justice system. … We want to help them before they even get into the system, before jail, before court, before anything.”

Credit: Vegas Stronger

The nonprofit, and Marlon, are in a unique position to piece together the puzzle and create a sustainable model. Marlon is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor supervisor, as well as a professional counselor. He can diagnose and treat a wide array of mental health and substance abuse disorders. Along with being the former CEO of the largest insurance company in town, he’s a recovering drug user himself.

Even with the plethora of experience, Vegas Stronger still fights uphill battles to provide care. Managed care companies and utilization reviews continuously place artificial limits and prior authorization requirements on the services. Marlon has to personally advocate for each person.

“How can you deny a psychiatric visit for this 20-year homeless heroin-dependent learning disabled person? Are you kidding me?” questions Marlon.

An interesting partnership on Vegas Stronger’s list is with the Metro Police Department. Typically we hear that police are not interested in loosening their hold in the community, but in Vegas the opposite seems to be true. Paul Vautrinot is the Executive Director of Shine a Light, the Program Director for Crossroads, and the Program Director for Freedom House, all service providers for people experiencing homelessness. He works with Vegas Stronger in their initiatives as well as the MPD LIMA, a program from Metro’s behavioral health unit that is a pre-booking alternative. He says that not only is Metro happy to have others provide these services to those experiencing homelessness, they prefer it because it’s the right thing for everyone involved.

“When we talk about alternatives to policing, I think there’s a stigma associated with the term,” says Vautrinot. “It’s intended to say we need to reallocate money to more appropriate community and safety-net programs to deal with clients that aren’t criminal, as opposed to putting the weight of that on the police’s shoulders. I would caution to say that Metro is more than willing to let the appropriate people take this on. Instead of police spending money to arrest and house someone in jail, and not provide them with any real help, we are diverting them to more appropriate responses and services.”

LIMA, which is as new as Vegas Stronger, worked with their first client in February 2020. They drop off people experiencing homelessness and individuals with substance abuse issues at the Vegas Stronger program, utilizing the Crossroads beds, instead of citing them or arresting them. They are one of several organizations that LIMA provides with grants to cover the cost of beds. The total grant divided up between all programs involved is $750,000 for one fiscal year.

The aim these initiatives have, says Dede Parker, a Speciality Court Administrator for Clark County Courts who works with LIMA, are to be true diversionary programs.

“We’re really just trying to address the issues of homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse before it hits the criminal justice system,” Parker says. “We want to help them before they even get into the system, before jail, before court, before anything.”

This is a sizable request, given that there are 10,000 to 15,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in Las Vegas. Much of the population lives in storm-drainage tunnels that maze across the underbelly of the city itself. While people have been congregating under there for years, more have been moving in because of the city ordinance that passed in 2019. It banned camping and loitering on public right of way in the entire downtown corridor and residential areas. This is also part of the reason that the Rancho shopping center has recently seen an increase in people experiencing homelessness in the area — it stands right outside the borders of the ordinance. The eviction moratorium was set to expire on March 31, before being extended to June 30; legislators say it will not be extended again. Organizations are preparing for a surge of individuals to experience homelessness, and are strategizing who gets helped first: the newly homeless, or the originally homeless?

Although both Vegas Stronger and Restoring Rancho are relatively new with limited outcomes data, they have noted that they’ve helped about 30 individuals since the start, and currently have a census of 15. They are partnering with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to have their outcomes properly tracked and analyzed by the university.

Local businesses in the area are still getting used to calling Vegas Stronger and having them help in a real way, instead of just having people fined and arrested. Anthony Rozzi, co-owner of Broadway Pizzeria, notes the initiative is helpful because “we don’t like to call the cops, it’s not our style. These are real people.”

Todd Corey, co-owner of Just Play Bar, says he’s seeing both a different side to the shopping center and to the individuals experiencing homelessness.

“What Vegas Stronger is doing is commendable,” Corey says. “I have seen the number of people camped outside my bar decrease incredibly. [What they’re doing] has made me see people struggling in a different light.”

Vegas Stronger wants to help one person at a time, and is thankful for each person they get to aid — people such as Alvin Brown, who was experiencing homelessness for two days after his mom kicked him out of the house.

“I had been sober for three weeks from crystal meth when my mom thought I was using again. I was on the streets when I got turned on to Vegas Stronger and Crossroads. I got a meal, a bed, an assessment, and they signed me up for Medicaid,” Brown says.

Brown recently celebrated his 30 days of sobriety, and he’s still staying at Crossroads. He now has access to mental health services with three therapists, a peer support specialist and a doctor, and he is undergoing outpatient treatment for substance abuse.

“I’m a musician, I’m a worship leader in my church, I write, I sing, I play. I’m an EMT and truck driver by trade. But look what my decisions brought me to: this low point,” Brown says. “Not that it’s all bad, it’s a teaching point. This is my pause right now. If it wasn’t for the help from Vegas Stronger, I would be dead or in jail right now.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced by What’s Next Magazine, a website that examines solutions across the country regarding alternatives to policing and the current system of criminal justice. It appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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Jessica Kantor is a contributor to What's Next Magazine.

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