Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Susan Milstrey Wells shares her observations about the stark contrast between the opulence of Las Vegas, its citizens who are homeless, and her uneasiness about how to respond.
I recently returned from attending a conference in Las Vegas. It was my first trip to the aptly named Sin City, where every manner of decadent behavior is on display 24/7. It didn’t take me long to discover that Las Vegas isn’t my kind of town. I don’t drink, smoke, or gamble. I do love to shop, but the prices in Vegas are eye-popping. You can spend $400 to $800 a day on a pool cabana, complete with television and a private cocktail waitress. Or you can order a $1,000 sundae covered in 23K edible gold leaf served with an 18K gold spoon. You get to keep the spoon.
But you don’t have to look far, amid the opulence and the excess, to find the sadder, seamier side of Vegas. On every overpass, street corner, and grand entrance to an even grander hotel and casino are people whose luck has run out. People who are homeless in Las Vegas are in stark contrast to their surroundings. I’ve been in major cities—New York; Washington, DC; San Francisco. I’ve seen people who are homeless. But this time they really got to me.
After 25 years of writing about homelessness, I know that giving money to people I see on the streets isn’t a good idea. But I wanted to help. I wanted to give twice what he was asking to the man whose sign read, “Girlfriend locked in pay toilet; need 50 cents to free her.” I thought his creativity surely was worth $1. Or the man whose sign said simply, “Trust me, this sucks.” Undoubtedly his honesty was worth some help.
I kept my wallet closed, but I couldn’t get these people out of my mind. And a little bit of research revealed that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) 2012 Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness, Las Vegas has the fifth largest number of homeless people in the country, at more than 8,700. Nearly 65 percent of these individuals are unsheltered, but many of them you never see.
In his book Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, author Matthew O’Brien tells the story of people who live in the tunnels under the Las Vegas strip. Built to protect the desert from flash floods, they are now home to people like Steve, who moved underground after a drug problem left him homeless. Profiled by ABC’s Nightline program in 2009, Steve said he got clean when he met his fiancée, Katherine. Steve and Katherine slept by day—under Caesars Palace, where my room cost $200 a night. They played the slots in the evening, sometimes earning as much as $50 a day.
But the casinos are always the big winners. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, in the first two months of this year alone, gaming revenue on the Las Vegas Strip was $1.2 billion. In 2012, the average visitor stayed three nights and wagered $485. This is in a city where the per capita annual income (in 2011 dollars) was $26,755 and 15 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Perhaps things are getting better. In 2006, Las Vegas enacted its 10-year plan to end homelessness. And the city saw the third largest decrease in homelessness between 2011 and 2012, according to HUD.
Clearly, I don’t have any answers. And I’m not pure of heart. While in Vegas, I luxuriated in a bathroom that was as big as my bedroom back home. I fell in love with a $400 purse that I almost bought. But I wish I’d given a dollar, or maybe two, to the man who needed to free his girlfriend from the restroom. Mostly, I wish I’d had the courage, and the humanity, to look him in the eye and smile.
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