'Las Vegas is the most bizarre environment imaginable,' says Sue Markham, director of vocational rehab programs at the Salvation Army's Lied Social Services complex. 'It's hard to describe to outsiders. There is very little sense of community. Even in the richest areas, you might find yourself next door to a stripper, a meth lab, or a drug lord.'
"Las Vegas is a Disneyland for adults," says John Evans, who runs the Lied Transitional Housing Program. "But in the shadow of that, life is hard."
Just 15 or 20 minutes from the famous Las Vegas Strip, the Lied center is part of another teeming thoroughfare known as the "homeless corridor." Turning into the center, I see dozens of men and women milling about. Some appear to be wearing all they own. Others, wrapped in blankets, sleep in a concrete courtyard on a brilliant, blue-sky, 50-something degree morning.
This group is the overflow crowd from the Day Resource Center, which serves more than 300 people each day. It's the first stop in the Army's continuum of care for homeless people that includes Safe Haven, an overnight shelter; the Lied Vocational Center; Pathways, a residential group home for people with mental illness; a women's residential program for recovering addicts; and transitional apartments.
A Spiritual Center
Major William Raihl, a Salvation Army officer who is Clark County coordinator and director of the Lied Center, has his office at a nearby Salvation Army church, called a corps, where many former clients worship.
"The Army used to use a symbol of a wheel with the corps at the center," he says. "[For us,] everything flows into the spiritual."
The next project under construction at Lied is a chapel, which will be in the center of the complex.
"That's symbolic," Raihl says.
In the lobby of Safe Haven, a dedication plaque proclaims that this center is "dedicated to the glory of God." It's an unmistakable theme at Lied, where the leader of every program has a strong commitment to the Lord.
"It drives everything we do," Raihl says. The center offers nightly worship services and Bible studies as well as practical help.
Gateway to Help
Day Resources director Thomas Bell says the Lord has blessed him with an important gift: remembering names. Seven or eight years ago, when he first started his job here, he misspelled a man's name when he was adding him to the list. When the man pointed it out, Bell said, "Oh, that doesn't matter."
"It does to me," the man said.
Bell, a recovering alcoholic and gambling addict himself, has another important gift: patience.
"I don't expect them to be angels. They have a wide range of emotional needs," he says. "They are fearful—being homeless is scary!" People worry where they will sleep, and they fear getting mugged or not being able to get their next meal.
Bell recalls one woman, 55, who had been "86-ed" (kicked out) of every program in the area. She was given extension after extension to stay at the shelter but finally left after two months.
"Three weeks later, she came back with tears in her eyes to tell me she had gotten into Section 8 housing and just wanted to thank me," Bell says. He says his philosophy is, "Don't quit until the miracle comes."
Chance after Chance
At Safe Haven, which provides overnight shelter for homeless people with mental illness, director David Norment also supervises PATH (Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness), run in conjunction with the Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services. In 1999, the program was named one of the seven best out of 400 in the nation.
Like Bell, Norment has a high tolerance for lapses.
"How can I not give people a second chance, even a third chance?" he says. "When they ask for that, the answer is always 'yes.' "
Many of Safe Haven's clients are on medications for their mental conditions, and as Norment says, they have also "been used to medicating themselves" with alcohol or other drugs. Clients aren't mandated to attend meetings or become part of PATH, but they have the opportunity to attend Narcotics, Alcoholics, or Gamblers Anonymous as well as groups for bipolar disorder, depression, and anger management.
In this intense atmosphere, Norment says, staff members also receive counseling and go on frequent retreats to help them cope.
Norment himself has been through the deep waters of addiction and depression, but he has learned to trust in God for help.
"It's only by the grace of God that I'm here," he says. Like Bell, he lives for miracles.
"Just give me one!" he says. Today a man who came to visit him was one of those success stories.
"When he came to Safe Haven, he wouldn't even talk," Norment says. "Now he's moving into an apartment on his own."
Just up the hill from Safe Haven is the brand new Lied Vocational Training Center. When Sue Mark-ham started working here, there was no job training.
"We weren't doing anything but 'three hots and a cot,' " she says. She developed a program geared to homeless people who have the desire to re-enter the workforce. It provides 10 weeks of classes on essential employment skills; academic and job training, including on-site computer and culinary training; and a residential phase during which clients work, pay 30 percent of their adjusted net for rent in transitional housing, and save up to another 30 percent.
In her work here, Markham says, "Faith comes first; it's what drove me to The Salvation Army." She involves a chaplain in the work ethics class.
"When you think you've lost everything, it's important to understand that God is still here," she says. "Clients grasp that."
Another part of Markham's job is supervising the center's huge meal program, which serves as many as 1,000 meals a day, many of them free for overnight guests and people living on campus. Others, including people from the neighborhood, can purchase tokens for meals ($2 for breakfast and $2.50 for other meals) with cash or food stamps.
"We do a whopping business," Markham says. Culinary students run a cafe as a way of practicing their skills. The 20th class of 15 students just graduated.
David, who came through the program, is now making $14.62 per hour at Bellagio, one of the most famous hotel/casinos in Las Vegas.
Markham recalls that when David started the culinary program, he called his mother to let her know. Her response, driven by years of disappointment, was, "We'll see if you finish." But when she realized that David had really been successful, Markham says, "She began crying and crying on the phone; [I knew] the reunification process had begun."
A little farther up the hill is Pathways, a HUD-licensed group home for homeless people with mental health issues. For Bonnie Evans, the director, success is measured in small steps.
One man, a 40-year-old schizophrenic, often had hallucinations and rarely got out of bed before 1 p.m. He got extensions to stay beyond the two-year limit. Eventually, he learned to take a city bus all over town and was able to go to Chicago, care for his dying mother, and even make funeral arrangements.
"That's a miracle!" Evans says.
Pam Girouard, a staff member who worked for a rape crisis center before coming to Pathways, says she loves her work here.
"People can live up to their potential," she says, "whatever that is."
Another facility on the hilltop is a residence for women in recovery, led by Diane Heller. Ten years ago, she was convicted of a DUI with a fatality; her passenger was killed. Before she went to jail, Heller went through the Army's Adult Rehabitation Program. In prison, she took Bible correspondence courses provided by the Army.
"They [The Salvation Army] gave me my life back," she says. "They let me get past the guilt and shame. I surrendered my life to the Lord."
Heller and her staff have credibility with women trying to turn their lives around. "Mama Gail," a staff member who had a gambling addiction, says, "If I come in here, I want to learn from someone who's 'been there.' "
A Room of Your Own
John Evans, who manages the 71 apartments in Lied's Transitional Housing Program, is Bonnie Evans's husband. The two started out as Arthur Murray dance instructors but left that profession and eventually ended up on the streets for three years in New Mexico. The Salvation Army there took them into a rehab program, even though couples are typically not accepted.
"God only knows why, but they took us," Evans says.
In the housing program, clients can come from any of the Army's long-term care programs and may stay up to two years. While here, they attend meetings to help them maintain sobriety and refresh living skills such as cooking and money monagement.
"We help people learn to save money so that there's not too much month at the end of their money," Evans says. Clients go on to work in hotels, casinos, restaurants; some even take jobs with The Salvation Army.
A Wider Spectrum
Down the street from the Lied Center is another Salvation Army facility, a Family Services Center. Major Raihl says this program helps families who have housing but are living on the edge. The point of the program, he says, is to strengthen families and prevent people from slipping into homelessness.
At the Lied Center, transitional housing soon won't be the last stop on the continuum for homeless clients. Raihl says the state has given the Army a tract of land for just $10, and the plan is to build 78 affordable apartments for the "poorest of the poor."
Already, the Lied Social Services Center is a way station to a better life for many homeless people.
Terri, for example, was homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol when she came in through Safe Haven. A client of PATH and the Vocational Rehabilitation Center, she is in transitional housing and is re-establishing connections with her three sons.
"I get tears in my eyes when I think about that," she tells Major Raihl. "It's awesome; I couldn't have done it without The Salvation Army."
Raihl opens his arms to hug Terri. "Now you're the kind of people I like!" he says.