Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

More people experiencing homelessness are living in cars around Las Vegas

cars
AP Photo/John Locher, File
/

FILE - In this April 22, 2021 file photo, cars wait at a red light during rush hour at the Las Vegas Strip, in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas has always had people experiencing homelessness. Every city has them. But there’s a twist now that we’re seeing throughout Las Vegas: more people living in vehicles.

There are reports of more RVs, SUVs and vehicles parked at night along Charleston Boulevard on the way to Red Rock Canyon.

There are a number of reasons for that. 

Homeless numbers appear to be growing because affordable housing is extremely rare. Rents, which we’ve talked about here, are sky high.

Shelters are housing more people, and shelter curfews often make it hard for people holding regular job hours to stay in them.

And there’s growing evidence that some people simply prefer the privacy of a vehicle -- it lets families stay together and there’s protection from the elements. As you’ll hear, if you’re on a fixed income, it can not only be cheaper, but somewhat liberating.

There is a flipside. 

Nearby homeowners might understand the lack of affordable housing, but some say the trash and debris left behind, along with the uncertainty of who’s living in the vehicles, leaves them uneasy.

KEEPING FAMILIES INTACT

Kathi Thomas oversees operations at the Courtyard homeless resource center, run by the City of Las Vegas. She said she thinks families and individuals are making choices based on their specific needs when it comes to being unhoused. It’s challenging for families who may be split up when using shelters.

“Oftentimes, families fear that they might lose custody of their minor children, if they come forward, so to speak,” she said. “And so they try to stay under the radar, for lack of a better phrase, for as long as they can. Because they are concerned that the fragmented service delivery system in Southern Nevada will not allow them to stay intact as a family.”

There’s limited shelter capacity for intact families.

But, there are resources available to those living in their cars. Thomas said they’ll do an assessment, get the family on the regional queue for permanent housing and then do individual assessments which includes a medical team.

Everything's got to be individualized. There's not one size fits all. If there are 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, there's going to be 1,000 different needs.

Hopelink of Southern Nevada’s Stacey Lockhart said there are many reasons why living in a car may be more appealing if it’s an option – remaining mobile, keeping more belongings, and being part of a community that looks out for each other.

“The people who are in these situations are resourceful,” she said. “And they are creating their own community in their own network and sharing tips, sharing advice on safety, where to park, where not to park, how to equip your car from the sun and the heat, all that stuff. And they're looking out for each other when we don't have the ability to look out for them.”

Many people are one paycheck away from experiencing homelessness, and with many living in their cars, the term blurs multiple lines. Is someone living in their car, or a van, but not in a house, homeless? What if they weren’t economically forced into it, but chose it as a nomadic lifestyle?

SHIFT NEEDED IN VEHICLE RESIDENCY

Dr. Graham Pruss is a post-doctoral fellow, UC San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. People living in vehicles has become so common, his research focuses on vehicle residency, social services and policies directed to those areas.

He said many people living in their cars are on a fixed or limited income.

That being said, many people are doing this long term in ways that can be healthy, stable and safe.

“That being said, many people are doing this long term in ways that can be healthy, stable and safe. But many of the concerns that they have in the challenges, as well as even the garbage that you mentioned before, comes from the fact that they don't have a private space to inhabit their vehicle, and are thus sleeping in public spaces where they generally don't have access to garbage receptacles, public toilets or hygiene facilities,” Pruss said.

He said there needs to be a shift in vehicle residency. Many who live in their cars don’t identify as homeless but have social services available should they need them.

“However, many of these service sites don't actually have off-street or overnight parking that's available for vehicles. And that can be a significant barrier to people connecting to those services, particularly for people who live far from the services,” he said.

His research in Oakland showed they need a variety of temporary and long-term parking spaces for those living in their vehicles. This could mean safe parking programs and long-term supportive parking programs. Pruss noted it can take months or even years for a transition into permanent housing.

'NOT QUITE VISIBLE AS BEING HOMELESS'

Suanne Carlson has lived in her vehicle since 2009, as a choice of lifestyle. She’s also the co-founder of the Homes on Wheels Alliance, based in Pahrump.

For her, she’s able to experience nature and travel.

“I get to explore the United States and the various cultures, get to know people unlike myself, and I just find that rewarding and, and it's just intellectually stimulating,” she said.

She said people like her are “kind of unidentifiable” and “not quite visible as being homeless.”

But there’s a compromise with space and the elements. She said someone who chooses to live like her would need to be independent, intuitive and extremely flexible.

“You might have planned to camp at a location that now is closed for restoration. Or that you pull up someplace that has been trashed, and you have now you need to find another place,” she said.

Pruss noted people have been living in vehicles since they were invented, and places like mobile home parks are recognized as affordable housing.

“We need to consider what it means, why people would see their vehicle as a more stable form of affordable housing than, say, the rental market,” he said. “And how we can adjust our own housing practices and our supportive system to meet the needs of this growing community of people.”

Suanne Carlson, executive director and co-founder, Homes on Wheels Alliance;  Dr. Graham Pruss, post-doctoral fellow, UC San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative;  Kathi Thomas, director of community services, City of Las Vegas; Stacey Lockhart, executive director, Hope Link of Southern Nevada

Stay Connected
Dave Berns, now a producer for State of Nevada, recently returned to KNPR after having previously worked for the station from 2005 to 2009.