In a first-world country such as ours, it seems jarringly out of place to discuss homelessness on a national level. Even in beautiful Clark County, there were nearly 6,400 people affected by homelessness in 2020, 26% of them under the age of 18. Founded in 1989, the Council for the Homeless works to prevent homelessness in Clark County by taking action to keep people in their homes, and by making services for the unhoused an easier and more accessible experience, which includes holistic support for the individual or family experiencing homelessness. This means working with a multitude of organizations, providers, and programs to get people off the streets and into affordable housing.
Heather Sheppard, systems integration manager, is one of those organizers. “I primarily focus on system integration work, particularly between the behavioral, physical, and mental health organizations and the homeless crisis response system,” she says. “I focus on building relationships between our partner agencies and our organization, in an attempt to streamline services, make more equitable system decisions, and reduce barriers and gaps in access.”
“Everyone has value and a story,” says Christi Lail, diversion coordinator with the Council for the Homeless. Lail’s job is working with families to find stable and affordable housing, a hot commodity to be sure. With the arrival of COVID-19, she has also been a part of the Prevention Team, which helps individuals maintain their housing during the pandemic by helping with rent and providing additional resources as needed.
If this all sounds rather complex to you, that’s because it is. “There are so many reasons why someone becomes homeless,” explains Lail. “By using a single story of what your view of homelessness is, you are creating a dangerous narrative to judge individuals by. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the phrase ‘single stories’ to describe the overly simplistic and sometimes false perceptions we form about individuals, groups or countries. A single story is a one-sided point of view of something or someone. Single stories have the power to tell false interpretations of the actual story. I encourage you to think about those individuals you see who might be homeless. Think about them being human, not just homeless. Think about their story and what supports and resources they, and our community, are lacking. Think about treating them with dignity and respect. They deserve it, we all do, so be kind.”
Lail goes on to explain the myths, stereotypes and perception of homeless individuals further exacerbate the stigma the general public has on the homeless. One of the most common misconceptions is that the homeless should just “get a job,” when in reality, as many as 40%-60% of people experiencing homelessness nationwide have jobs, sometimes more than one. “I honestly get frustrated,” admits Lail. “Many do work! And just getting a job does not solve the problem. With rents being extremely high, many cannot make the rental amount even if they are working full time. My next questions are: What address would you like the individual to put on the job application? Where would you like them to create and print their resume? Where would you like them to shower and get fresh clothes for the interview? Who is going to watch their kids (if they have any) for them to go to the interview?”
Despite rising housing costs, stagnant incomes, and pandemics, the Council for the Homeless has made great strides over the past year. “Two positive changes during the pandemic were the Increase in rental assistance and the statewide eviction moratorium. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) are being disproportionately affected by COVID and are at higher risk of experiencing homelessness. The community has acknowledged this disparity and has stepped up in many ways to provide more equitable access to services for those experiencing the economic/health/unstable fallout of COVID in their lives and for their families.” They have also just broken ground on an apartment complex in Vancouver called The Meridian, which will have 46 apartments available in early 2022.
So how can the community at large continue to help? Sheppard and Lail stress that one of the biggest ways the people of Clark County can help is through community education. The Council for the Homeless offers a monthly newsletter to keep people aware of the most recent activities, as well as a monthly webinar that is made available on their website here. More tangible options include donating items, such as hygiene items (deodorant, toothpaste, etc.), as well as new or gently used clothing. Socks are especially welcome. A full list of dos and don’ts of what to donate can be found here. Money donations are, of course, always accepted on their website here.
Above all, Sheppard and Lail stress the importance of treating the homeless with the respect that they truly deserve. “Unless you are that person sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk, or in a car with your children, you don’t know what they’re going through or what situation brought them to this point,” says Sheppard. “Be kind, look them in the eye, and acknowledge their existence.”