Bypassing traditional aid groups, local man helps the homeless, DIY-style
As a cold snap approaches Las Vegas on a Saturday afternoon in January, Josh Ellis clears space in the camper shell of his red Toyota T100. His friend Aaron Archer carries boxes of supplies, including 54 sleeping bags, 20 blue plastic tarps, 50 packets of hot cocoa mix, 48 cups of noodles, hundreds of hand warmers, and a five-gallon hot water dispenser. They are eventually joined by volunteers Guy Griebel and Brandy Glasgow.
“Nobody dies tonight,” Ellis tells them.
Since December 30, Ellis has been personally handing out food, sleeping bags, clothes, flashlights, and tampons to Vegas’ homeless at least once a week. One of the very few Las Vegans taking this DIY approach to the issue, Ellis operates at a level well below that of more established homeless-outreach groups, and can only reach a fraction of the approximately 25,000 homeless people who, according to a 2017 homeless census by the group Help Hope Home, live here. He and girlfriend Mel Clark spend much of their time organizing care packages, many provided by people they have never met.
The team heads out. Archer serves as Ellis’ copilot, directing him where to lead the three-vehicle caravan. They smoke Pall Malls and talk about their disdain for the city’s treatment of the homeless.
“Of every city I’ve ever been to in the world, this is the meanest to the poor and homeless that I’ve ever seen,” Ellis says, the factors involved ranging from recent gentrification in Downtown, which eliminated some low-income housing, all the way back to the anti-homeless policies pushed by former Mayor Oscar Goodman. (A controversial 2006 ordinance banned people from feeding the homeless in parks. It was ruled unconstitutional in 2007.)
The crew situates itself in a Jack in the Box parking lot near Flamingo Road and Swenson Street. A pair of homeless people camp next to a power transformer, but five more show up as Ellis’ group passes out sleeping bags and comforters.
A woman named Linda asks if Ellis has pants for the woman with her, who’s shaking in a short, worn denim skirt and a thin, long-sleeve shirt.
“Are you guys a church or something?” Linda asks.
“Just us,” Archer says.
After searching his supplies, Ellis is only able to give them sleeping bags, hand warmers, and cigarettes. No pants. “Sorry we can’t do more than this,” he says.
“No, what you’re doing is phenomenal,” Linda says.
Ellis has put some $250 of his own money into this effort, but estimates he’s received close to $2,500 worth of donations, largely through an Amazon wish list he shares with his 7,449 Facebook and Twitter followers.
Ellis and friends next drive toward a makeshift camp set up in the Commercial Center District near Maryland Parkway and Sahara Avenue. A sense of urgency is setting in as the temperature hovers near 40 degrees.
“When it gets this cold, people start dying,” Archer says.
“Not on our f---ing watch,” Ellis replies.
The air smells of campfire smoke and stale urine as they park near Commercial Center, where five shelters made from scrap wood and miscellaneous materials occupy an adjacent dirt lot. A half-dozen people emerge as the team hands out more sleeping bags, hand warmers, and Cup Noodles. Ellis keeps it short so they don’t attract unwanted attention from business owners, who’ve recently sought help from the property manager and the county to remove the vagrants.
While it’s not illegal to give food and supplies to the homeless, some local outreach groups discourage the guerrilla approach Ellis has adopted. Deacon Tom Roberts, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, says that circumventing established organizations brings more harm than good — causing a buildup of waste, creating safety hazards, and deterring people from community resources. Instead, he encourages people to involve themselves with established local groups.
“Let the people who do the work, like us, lead the charge with supplying those items, but then come and help us,” Roberts says. “There’s plenty of need to go around.”
Ellis believes those organizations fall short in providing enough food and material. “We’re trying to fill in the gaps of what social services won’t do, (and) what religious charities won’t do,” he says. For example, he’s floated the idea of partnering with someone* to distribute clean needles and Narcan, an overdose prevention medication.
Charity is often driven by altruism, and there’s certainly an element of that in Ellis’ crusade; likewise, some familiar with his outsized and sometimes self-aggrandizing social-media persona perhaps think there’s a bit of ego involved, as well. But Ellis says he’s primarily motivated by a different emotion. “F---ing rage,” he says. “I cannot stand seeing people f---ed with by society.”
This isn’t his first experience with the homeless. Years ago, for Las Vegas CityLife, Ellis and journalist Matthew O’Brien wrote about people who live in the city’s storm drains. In 2007, O’Brien published a book about it, Beneath the Neon, and later created a charity to help tunnel-dwellers. But the problem persists. “There’s still people down there; nothing’s really gotten fixed,” Ellis says.
The last destination of the day is the so-called Corridor of Hope near Las Vegas Boulevard and Foremaster Lane, an area with a heavy homeless population and multiple resource centers. A smell similar to that of the Commercial Center camp lingers in the air.
The team sets up on a stretch of sidewalk along Foremaster, which is lined with temporary structures, and begins dispersing hot cocoa and Cup Noodles, along with whatever supplies are left. Ellis forgot to bring cups for the hot chocolate, but people supply their own. Within half an hour, the team is out of supplies.
“Nothing we did tonight is going to get these people off the street,” Ellis acknowledges. “But while they’re there, it’s going make them (feel) less awful. And sometimes that’s the only thing you can do.”
He’ll keep doing what he can, he says, and hopes others will, too, here and elsewhere.
“I want everybody to do this everywhere, all the time,” Ellis says. “I want people to spend an hour of their week just taking shit to people who are starving in their town.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that Ellis wanted to distribute clean needles and Narcan himself.