Las Vegas officials passed a law last year making it illegal for the homeless to sleep on streets when beds are available at local shelters.
It’s been a controversial decision to say the least, with protesters labeling it a “war on the poor.”
Whatever you think about the new law, it doesn’t change the fact that an annual survey conducted in January 2019 counted more than 5,500 people living on the streets of Las Vegas.
That’s one of the reasons why the LGBTQ Center of Southern Nevada, along with the Salvation Army and the Brightstar Foundation, re-opened a “safety dorm” this month.
“For a long time, it was very difficult for LGBTQ people, especially trans people, to get access to emergency services because of discrimination, not only by staff but also safety concerns from other patrons,” said trans and gender diversity coordinator for the LGBTQ+ Center of Southern Nevada Ray MacFarlane, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns.
MacFarlane said a disproportional number LGBTQ youth, especially transgender people, experience homelessness. They said up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
“It’s a youth issue. It’s a homeless issue but it’s also an LGBTQ issue,” MacFarlane continued, "The community has come together to try to address and meet those needs. And see what are the differences here, why is it that youth are homeless at higher rates in the queer community and what are the barriers to services and how can we improve those.”
One of the barriers is finding a safe space away from people who are homophobic or transphobic.
The new safety dorm, separate from the women's dorm and the men's dorm on the Salvation Army shelter campus, hopes to provide that safe space.
“But it is a space that is separate, especially when people are feeling harassed by other patrons,” MacFarlane said.
MacFarlane said they have stood in line with LGBTQ people to check them into the shelter and have heard some of the homophobic and transphobic comments from other people.
“A little bit of solace to be able to stay in a separate place where at least you can sleep through the night, knowing that you’re in an inclusive space,” they said.
Ultimately, MacFarlane would like to see someone from the LGBTQ community be the staff monitor for the shelter. Current security monitoring is done by the Salvation Army.
Syncere Harris has stayed at the safety dorm. He said he became homeless about a year ago.
“Me being transgender, it’s pretty hard for me to get into a female shelter. So, I turned to the safety dorm for a safe place to stay at,” he said.
Harris said at other shelters some women have asked him to leave because they view him as "too masculine."
He has also struggled to find jobs and housing because of his identity.
“It is hurtful in a way," he said, "It’s kind of frustrating because people of closed minds are very judgmental.”
Harris said he is doing better, and is looking for a new apartment. But the people he met through the safety dorm have become like a little family. He said they all look out for each other.
MacFarlane said Nevada needs to do more to provide affordable housing and transitional housing for everyone.
"The emergency resources are scarce," they said, "We don't have as many resources as California or other big cities but even if it's not emergency shelter, just affordable shelter itself, we're way underneath."
They said Nevada has one of the highest rates of homeless youth and one of the lowest rates of sheltering those youth.
Ray MacFarlane, trans and gender diversity coordinator, LGBTQ+ Center of Southern Nevada; Syncere Harris, resident, LGBTQ Safety Dorm
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