1 in 9: The Poor of Las Vegas - 8 News NOW

1 in 9: The Poor of Las Vegas

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Ed. Note: Between the years 2007 and 2011, the percentage of people living below the poverty level in Clark County was estimated at 12.9 percent. For a single person in 2012, this is an annual income of $11,170. The following story is part of 8NewsNow.com's coverage of the Las Vegas valley's poor.

LAS VEGAS -- Promises of riches and dreams of wild excess define the Las Vegas experience for millions of visitors each year.

While this diamond-studded hope fuels tourism, everyday life in southern Nevada often looks quite a bit bleaker. The Great Recession sliced through much of the nation, but its cut starkly divided the haves and have-nots in our valley. Through the voices of the valley's poor, 8 News NOW set out to explore the region's poverty epidemic.

Quantifying the valley's poverty problem can be difficult. To get a sense of its reality, step outside your home and count nine front doors. Behind one of those doors, statistics tell us someone is living in poverty. If it's a family of four, they are living on less than $23,550 a year. A single person is struggling even more, living on less than $11,490 a year.

Over the past several months, the 8 News NOW web team talked to those in trouble: families uncertain where they would pass the night; the ubiquitous homeless person who lays claim to a slab of concrete; a man who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis without home or family for comfort.

It is our hope that telling these stories will bring to light the issues Las Vegas' poor struggle with every day.


Volunteers departed from the cafeteria at Catholic Charities into a frigid February evening to count the valley's homeless. Many were easy to find, tucked into sleeping bags in a downtown area known as the homeless corridor, near Owens Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard. Some were more difficult to find, hidden by shrubs and a cloak of darkness in the nearby rocky desert.

A young woman, who appeared no more than 20 years old, laid curled on the concrete with a thin blanket striving but failing to cover her bare feet. Her flip-flops rested near her feet, her face and body caked with dirt.

Several people surrounded her, counting her as a single mark for their tally.

One of the volunteers stepped forward, asking her if she'd like his coat. Her eyes wide and her hair wild, she quickly scooped up her scant belongings and ran away into the night.

"She was laying on cold concrete, and she didn't have any socks on," said Ken LoBene, head of the Las Vegas office for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It's warm enough for me not to have it. I have others, but obviously, she didn't."

LoBene and others were counting the homeless to put a number to the faces seen every day in Las Vegas, whether it's a person holding a cardboard sign asking for help, or the woman and child walking along the sidewalk as they check shelters for an open cot to spend the night.

"There are more people on the street than we can ever help," LoBene said. "More people than we could ever house, more people than we could ever provide the mental health that you could provide someone. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep trying to find better and more effective ways."


Jordan Nissen just wants his Game Boy. He asks his mother, Sonja, to leave the comfort of their hotel room to catch a bus back to the women's shelter to retrieve their belongings. When they left the shelter, they had nowhere to go and left all of their belongings in a couple of plastic bags until they found somewhere for the night. But it was already dark out and the 10-year-old had school in the morning. Sonja tried to reason with her son, but he would have none of it. He wanted his prized handheld possession, often his only source of entertainment.

As the television blared, the boy's frustration boiled over, as he cried that their belongings would be gone if they waited until the morning.

"I want to go!" Jordan wailed.

Sonja decided they would wait. Already past 8 p.m., it would be difficult to catch a bus and then lug their bags back to the North Las Vegas hotel on feet sore from trekking the streets,

The next day, Sonja learned that her son was right. Others at Shade Tree picked through and claimed most of the little they called their own and, as her son feared, his Game Boy and skateboard disappeared.

For the next month, another charity would pay for the family to stay in a weekly apartment. Sonja had looked forward to having some stability to search for work, but among the items stolen were her interview clothes and cosmetics.

"I feel like I will never get out of this situation," she said. "If you had to go through what (we) have had to, you would understand."


UNLV economics professor Bill Robinson disputed the federal guidelines that define the idea of "poor." The Department of Agriculture sets the guidelines, so when the Census Bureau determines that 9.6 percent – roughly 1 in 9 -- of Clark County residents live in poverty, the valley is believed to be below the national average.

Robinson contends that poverty line is leaving out people who make more than what the federal government determines as poor, but still don't earn enough money to feed themselves.

"I would say that there's more," he said. "There's a lot of hidden (poverty)."

About 64,000 families in Las Vegas try to survive on an annual income of $25,000. They might not be considered to be poor by federal standards but truly are.

"When you think about making $2,000 a month, if there's two people, your health care costs would eat half of that -- if you had health insurance," Robinson said. "Your rent would eat half of that and your car would probably eat half of that. And you'd have to eat."

Beyond those basics are costs many families consider part of daily life.

"You're going to skip medical care that you might otherwise get," Robinson said. "The chance that you're taking the family for a weekend at Disneyland is zero. Your life is restricted in many ways. It may seem that you're functioning, but there's all kinds of walls all around you."


The four children huddled on the floor of a barren apartment as they worked on the day's homework. Carpet was a luxury they hadn't experienced lately and it would make the night's slumber a bit more comfortable.

The next day, after months of sleeping at shelters and a one-bed weekly motel room, this family of five would receive a donation of furniture to provide Sherwood Wade-El and his four children a sense of stability, of home. The father and his kids managed to avoid sleeping on the streets, but it wasn't an easy feat. Already financially strapped, the one-time travel agency owner also had to manage his son Jayden's disability. Everything is slower, he said, when trying to get around town to appointments with a wheelchair, all while depending on the public bus.

His son, who has spina bifida, a disabling birth defect. Jayden receives a monthly check of $760 from the government for his disability. Of that, $550 is spent just on his medical supplies. He also requires medications for his condition and because he lost the in-home care, Wade-El, who was unemployed, became Jayden's sole caregiver.

Wade-El kept encountering roadblocks as he tried to finish his training to become a truck driver., Because he has custody of the children and Jayden's income being counted as family earnings, Wade-El has found it difficult to acquire necessary services such as food stamps and welfare.

"I don't want welfare," he said. "I would really rather be able to finish school and get to work. For me, I see it as bump. It's not a lifestyle. I understand the (social) systems. (It) needs to be transitional, and that's our mindset. Do what we have to do now. Make that transition to self-sustainability.

"Everyone's learned to make do, and they understand that this isn't forever. This is a transition. We'll work through it."

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