On the front lines with homeless advocate Merideth Spriggs
Heading north on Las Vegas Boulevard on her weekly outreach hike, long black curls cascading from beneath her trademark black beanie, homeless advocate Merideth Spriggs leaves behind the Fremont Street Experience and Downtown Project’s urban-renewal zone. It’s the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year’s Eve — 363 days since she vowed to work toward ending homelessness in Las Vegas — and the temperature dropped below freezing overnight. Dressed for the cold, and diminutive compared to the mostly adult males she encounters on her route, she has packages of socks, hygiene kits, bottled water and emergency blankets tightly folded into pocket-sized plastic bags. Each has a sticker that reads “Warmest Wishes from City of Las Vegas Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin — Keep Someone Warm This Winter.”
Just before Bonanza Road, we pass a small pile of decaying matter that Spriggs identifies as discarded food donations. She’s seen fights break out after well-meaning souls drop off food from the safety of their cars at places where indigents gather. We meet Alonzo, who says he’s 73 and came to Vegas from New York on a Greyhound bus. He’s so disheveled that Spriggs doubts he’s been on a bus anytime recently. The tip of his ring finger is gone and skin peels from the sticky hand he holds out to shake (staph infections are a risk in outreach work, so Spriggs carries anti-bacterial lotion rather that avoiding contact). “A pair of socks would help me out,” he says. “I’ve been wearing the same pair for five or six days.”
A lot next to a mostly abandoned strip mall looks like a refugee camp, dotted with tents both manufactured and makeshift, plus sleeping bags and piles of blankets. Spriggs is talking about how she’ll input data from today’s outreach into a Google doc shared with city officials when we come across a Rorschach-like explosion of brown on a wall. “That’s diarrhea from malt liquor,” she says. “They’re basically dehydrated so when they go, it, like, shoots out.”
Helping bridge the gritty realities of street life with new outreach technology is one way Spriggs is working toward the goal of a “functional zero” homeless population in Las Vegas. A veteran of San Diego’s war on homelessness, Spriggs brings a familiarity with new supertools and new federal funding to her adopted hometown. She’s able to build coalitions and move between diverse groups, from nightlife executives and government officials to shelter workers and unsheltered veterans. She spent 2014 observing Las Vegas’ homeless situation while employed by the Downtown Rangers, getting to know the players. She went to neighborhood meetings, arranged for representatives of advocacy organizations to meet and minimize the doubling of efforts, and managed to find permanent housing for 23 clients. She hopes to do more with her own nonprofit, Caridad — Spanish for charity — which she started in San Diego but revived last year here. For a city that recently lost one of its most passionate voices for the homeless, the late Linda Lera-Randle El, Spriggs couldn’t be surfacing at a better time.
Caridad’s approach includes providing streamlined access to existing resources, services and volunteer training “at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers," and working with the city to identify potential clients among the most frequent homeless users of the jail and hospital systems.
In the vacant lot, Spriggs approaches a tent warily, with a cheery, “Good morning!” As a dog barks inside, a male voice accepts her offer of socks. She gets no answer from a nearby pile of assorted fabrics, but leaves one of Bob’s blankets in case there is a person underneath. A man in one cardboard box won’t turn to look as she offers help. She’ll talk with more street people as we circle back toward Fremont Street and the Downtown Rangers’ Seventh Street headquarters, finding out if they’re veterans or need assistance obtaining identification and copies of birth certificates, before moving on to the next person who might need her help. Socks, for instance. Food is relatively easy to obtain, clean socks not so much.
The Homeless Whisperer
Two weeks later, she’s at the Downtown Rangers’ office across from the El Cortez’s parking garage. Before the end of January, most of the Rangers will be laid off, as will Spriggs. She was brought on 11 months earlier to teach homelessness-sensitivity to Downtown Project’s “ambassadors of the downtown Las Vegas community” after meeting DTP prime mover Tony Hsieh on New Year’s Day 2014. It’s a meeting that came after a period of soul-searching for Spriggs, a former aspiring youth pastor who had worked as a homeless advocate in San Diego before moving to Vegas. She woke up that morning with a flash-of-lightning realization: She was ready to rejoin the fight against homelessness. Meeting Hsieh led to employment with the Rangers, and Spriggs began outreach activity in the Downtown Project’s llama-shaped land holdings.
The layoff means Spriggs can now focus full time on Caridad, which she says Downtown Project has offered to help fund with a donation (she estimates Caridad needs annual funding of $185,025, which she is still considerably short of). On this pre-layoff morning, she’s wearing the same black beanie, which she first donned in California. “The clients in San Diego were always trying to pull it off me. They’re like, ‘What’s your hair look like without the beanie?’ I had one client who always teased me: ‘You’re really bald under there, aren’t you?’ … I’m just too lazy to do my hair.”
Spriggs is effervescent as she relates her history, emphasizing her ups with exclamations (“Yay!”) and her downs with whispered hushes. The Illinois native first fought homelessness in Kansas City, where she attended Nazarene Theological Seminary and worked as an event planner in nightlife, which first brought her to Vegas. She moved to San Diego in 2006 and worked in administration at Point Loma Nazarene University, but lost her job in 2008 at the onset of the recession. Spriggs says she couch-surfed or lived out of her car while trying to hold down jobs in retail and at a coffeehouse. She began spending more time among San Diego’s street denizens and developed a keen empathy for people at society’s lowest rungs.
“When I was homeless, there’d be times when I’d be sitting out and we’d get five homeless groups, people just driving by their leftovers and everything,” she says, laughing as she recalls the advice she received from her street peers. “They’re like, ‘Just say, ‘God bless you.’ It makes them feel better. That’s why they’re doing it anyway.’”
She also found out what it was like to barely hold on to street stability, let alone a job at a coffeehouse. “I’d always get parking tickets because you can’t always run out and feed the meter, but I had finally gotten a spot in this garage,” she says. “I couldn’t afford (it with) the tips one day, and I actually had to panhandle to get my car out, and that was the most humiliating moment.” Another time she returned to her car at 2 a.m. to find a police officer and a tow truck. “I was like ‘Please don’t take my car. That’s like, my everything, you don’t understand.’ And he said, ‘You have unpaid traffic tickets.’ I said, ‘I can’t afford to pay them, please don’t take my car. I can’t afford to work. You’re ruining my life if you take my car.’” The car was towed, and Spriggs was left crying in the street with a dead cell phone.
After a year of being homeless, she was hired by the San Diego Rescue Mission, then worked for a nonprofit, PATH San Diego. Her husband, whom she had married in July 2011 and who refers to her as “the homeless whisperer,” helped her start Caridad. Her experience in event planning led to some unorthodox coalition-building.
“Once I got going, it was the (nightlife) industry family that supported me,” she says. “What I discovered was that was an area not tapped into in terms of homeless services. They were good people, really generous spirits that were willing to give and willing to help.”
Spriggs says Caridad raised $5,800 in monetary donations and $50,372 worth of “in-kind donations” — clothing, socks, underwear — for partnering agencies from November 2011 to April 2013 (when she and her husband moved to Las Vegas). Caridad’s debut event took place in a nightclub, where church members mingled with agency workers. “I tried to get similar agencies together. ... So all the youth providers, I do an event for them, getting them all in the room and they’re talking, and I’m giving them money but also trying to facilitate community. I did a lot of education. All that is what I’m doing here, too, so I’m excited Downtown Project’s going to give me that platform, because they’re going to help me get it going here. … I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I don’t want to be a service-provider. I only want to do outreach and education.”
One of the first advocates she met with in Las Vegas was Jimmy Rolson, client operations director for Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. “I asked him a bunch of questions. He said I was asking questions that were so hard, and were so knowledgeable, that he thought I was a reporter at first,” she says. “‘He said, ‘Oh, you poor girl. She doesn’t know anybody or anything in this town. She’s never gonna make it. She thinks she’s going to make a difference, but we’ll be lucky if we see any more of her.’”
“After I started asking her if she knew certain people in our community that deal with homeless services, she sought all of them out,” Rolson says. “These are not just service-providers but people that make things happen in the community. I started seeing her in meetings and other events and each time she had more and more to do with what is happening in our community and our clients’ lives. … She did not just come in when there are a lot of tools to address the homeless population, but she is playing a big part of solving the homeless issues. She has become a voice that the entire community listens to.”
The Homeless Listener
What Spriggs doesn’t want is for her enthusiasm to be interpreted as a sign that she sees herself as self-appointed savior for the homeless. She wants to help agencies work together. “She’s bringing people to the table,” says Thomas “Chicago” Randle El of outreach organization Straight from the Streets. “And see, the thing is, she knows that she’s got to come to the door, she’s got to kick the door in and have something to talk about. She’s got all that. She’s got something to talk about. Now, ain’t nobody invited her in. She’s made her own way. She’s making her own noise.”
Randle El met Spriggs after the death of his wife, Linda Lera-Randle El. The media-savvy homeless advocate died in October 2014 after a long illness, leaving a void that Spriggs is poised to help fill. Chicago Randle El says he allowed himself a day to mourn before he was back on the streets doing outreach. Spriggs accompanied him one night in December to look for a homeless woman in the area around Durango and Rampart, and he was impressed by her determination and street smarts.
“I can’t compare her to Linda because I don’t know her that well,” he says. “But from what I’ve seen in the last month, and what I’ve heard, it’s good things because I’ve seen she’s been shaking them up. (Laughs). She’s on the front lines like me. She’s out. She’s knowing people that I didn’t think she did know. She knows them. That means, to me, that she’s taking time out to listen to them. She’s a listener, too. When you’re dealing with the homeless, you got to listen to their stories. That’s how you read people.”
“We have been working with Merideth and her organization, and we feel she is making a true impact in just a relatively short period of time,” says Stephen K. Harsin, director of the City of Las Vegas’ Office of Community Services. “Her work is greatly appreciated and invaluable to our efforts on ending homelessness. Merideth is one of many examples of how community partnerships can produce meaningful results.”
All the Right Moves
The day after our meeting at the Rangers’ office, she co-leads a coordinated outreach meeting at the Clark County Social Services building. It’s the group's second meeting. Twenty-three people representing the breadth of regional outreach workers, healthcare givers and shelter providers responded to Spriggs’ invitation to discuss issues affecting their work. Getting everyone in one room is sign of progress.
“It takes the local governments, the nonprofit organizations and the private sector, including individuals, all working together,” Harsin says. “We are now seeing that level of collaboration.”
Again wearing her black beanie, Spriggs asks for success stories at the end of the meeting. Narratives are shared by representatives of organizations such as Catholic Charities, Help of Southern Nevada, Shade Tree, the Veteran’s Administration and WestCare Foundation. They talk of minor triumphs and near misses, of helping people get all-important identification papers and birth certificates, of providing transportation for veterans and helping people stranded in Vegas find their way back to family in other states. The 2014 South Nevada Homeless Census reported a “total point-in-time count” of 9,417, and an estimated 36,718 people who experienced homelessness during the year. The people gathered in the room are on the front lines of trying to reduce that number. Spriggs encourages their efforts. “Humanizing the homeless” is the big picture for Spriggs, a long process that takes positivity and patience balanced with the ability, as Randle El says, to kick doors down.
“Merideth, to me, she’s bringing something new to the town,” says Randle El. “She’s making the right moves. I just hope other people want to work with her, because we’re two million strong. We can nip this homeless thing in the bud if everybody works together.”