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Safety Net: The Long Way Home

Shade Tree - Stacey Lockhart
Photography by Christopher Smith
Photography by Christopher Smith

The Shade Tree’s transitional housing program is gone, for now. Will it come back?

The Shade Tree offers two types of sheltering services for local women fleeing domestic violence, sometimes with children and pets in tow: emergency and transitional. The first type is self-explanatory. It’s what Belinda, an Oklahoma native who’d come to stay with her aunt and uncle in Las Vegas, needed after her uncle tried to rape her. She knew no one else in the city. A hotel couldn’t shield her from further harm or provide support in dealing with the trauma.

“I had no place to go,” Belinda says. “I had money, but I left it all at their house.” She called a friend, who found the Shade Tree online and scheduled a Lyft to drive Belinda there.

She was lucky enough to claim one of the 204 beds in the emergency shelter. After a month there, she went home to be reunited with her husband. Hours before catching a bus to Oklahoma, tears in her eyes, Belinda said, “I think I’m ready. … I know I’m ready.”

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The Shade Tree’s other type of shelter is transitional, meant to bridge the gap between sudden homelessness and permanent housing. Stacey Lockhart shuttered this program shortly after the Shade Tree announced her appointment as executive director on July 11. By press time, all the transitional program’s former residents had been relocated and the lights turned off on the third floor, which housed its 160 beds.

One Shade Tree resident who might have benefitted from transitional housing, Karri, tells of escaping from her abusive, schizophrenic boyfriend when he was out one day and the “sitter” he’d sent over to watch her fell asleep. She’d squirreled away a bus pass and food stamps — enough, she figured, to make it to safety. Karri has mental and physical scars that will take time to heal. She would like to work again, but appears unlikely to be ready within the 90 days to which her use of emergency services is limited.

Does she have friends or family who could take her in after that? A daughter, but she doesn’t want to go to there. No one else.

Where will she go? “I honestly don’t know,” she says.

It’s safe to assume times are never easy at a shelter for battered women that strives to take all comers, particularly one in a city with chronically low scores in charitable giving and one of the nation’s highest rates of domestic violence. But 2017 has been remarkably tough for the Shade Tree. In March, its director of programs and education, Robert White, was arrested and charged with one count of domestic battery. Former executive director Marlene Richter put White on leave without pay the following day, noting that the seriousness of the allegations against him warranted immediate action. (He was acquitted of the charge in June.) It wasn’t the first time Richter had to handle damaging publicity. Four years ago, a television reporter interviewed residents who told of squalid living conditions at the shelter, including rampant bed bugs and rodents. The report came near the end of a lengthy recession that had hit the Shade Tree with soaring demand and sinking funds. In divvying up 2016-17 federal funding from the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, which the Shade Tree had received in years past, the state passed the shelter over. After nine years of service, Richter was let go in July.

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Her replacement, Lockhart, doesn’t have experience helping homeless people or those fleeing domestic violence. Discussing the changes she was making, she talked about her commitment to cleaning up the facility. But her main focus is on a strength that she gained as director of other nonprofits: fundraising. Determined to free the Shade Tree from the whims of funding such as the VOCA grant, Lockhart launched a $2.3 million community giving campaign in August. By mid-September, she’d raised $160,000.

“We will keep it going until we reach our goal,” she said. “My hope is, in January we’re sending thank-you cards to everyone announcing that we’ve met our goal.”

The Shade Tree’s transitional program may also be the victim of a trend in homeless services. In its 2016 State of Homelessness in America report, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported nationwide increases in rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing programs, and decreases in transitional housing programs. Critics of transitional housing say the dorm-like facilities are stressful for families, and that the programs have poor success rates in permanent-housing placement.

But for people like Karri, there are few other options. As an independent study found, “Clark County represents nearly three-quarters of the state’s population and has the majority of victims across all crime types (including domestic violence). However, Clark County does not receive a representative share of VOCA funds at either the individual or the grant-based level. … Clark County is made to do more with less, which negatively impacts the largest groups of victims.” Perhaps this explains why a metro area of 2.1 million people has eight organizations that provide services for victims of domestic violence — the same number as Washoe County, with its 450,000 residents.

Despite the obstacles, and under Richter’s leadership, Shade Tree achieved a 91/100 rating by nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. There’s much to be hopeful for, and Karri certainly isn’t giving up.

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“I’d like to get a job here, to be honest,” she says, referring to the place that’s been her refuge for the past month. “The people here are really great. They saved my life, and I think I could help other people, too.”

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.