Weighing efficacy and sustainability; Arresting the homeless is a harmful misstep

By Deacon Thomas A. Roberts, CEO, Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada

I love Las Vegas. It is my home. Two of my children were born here. I spent the majority of my 27 years in the private sector working as an executive in the gaming business for some of the best employers and projects in Southern Nevada: The Forum Shops at Caesars; Rio, Harrah’s (Caesars); Boyd; Station Casinos (Red Rock Resorts). As a business person, I’m a ‘both/and’ guy. I’ve always operated with the principle that any program, service, promotion or business plan must contain two things: effectiveness and sustainability. Our more than 15 programs and services at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada (CCSN) operate within these same boundaries – they must be effective, and they must be sustainable.

I contend that we need to pivot the homeless conversation to first address three key issues: mental illness, drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Chronic homelessness is the primary result of the lack of effective and sustainable resources of these three issues for the vast majority of homeless and indigent populations. Arresting, fining and incarcerating homeless folks, as proposed in the City of Las Vegas’ ordinance, is not an effective solution for homelessness, and it is not sustainable. Based on the annual homeless surveys and my own experiences for the last seven years at CCSN, the vast majority of the chronic and systemic homeless populations suffer with mental illness, and use drugs and alcohol to manage pain, which leads to addictions. Our exceptional Metro officers need to spend their time arresting those who prey on the homeless and the public with acts of crime, on those that sell and distribute drugs, and not on those who are suffering from addiction.

Mental illness and addictions are treatable conditions. Imagine the sustainable and effective outcomes that could be realized if our local governments, community, and social service providers, like our organization, were able to collaborate and partner to provide more mental, physical and behavioral resources, versus the potential alternative of clogging up the jails and the legal system with homeless people. Without treatment resources, these folks will end up back on the street, and the cycle of insanity will continue and grow.

CCSN’s program called Renewing HOPE has helped more than 200 homeless men get off the streets and back to work in the past year. We used to operate a program helping homeless families become stable and self-sufficient called Homeless to Home, but these two programs are no longer funded by the City of Las Vegas. Programs like Renewing HOPE are effective and sustainable, thanks to our dedicated team members and other private grant funding resources. These programs can be expanded to include physical, mental and behavioral health wrap-around services, commensurate with public/private funding support.

CCSN has embarked on a pilot program called the Paula Marie Davis Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) program for those suffering from an addiction to opioids. We are also currently in conversations with the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority to build more housing for low-income and homeless individuals and families, with the caveat that the housing projects include space to provide treatment services for physical and behavioral health resources. This means mental health services working in tandem with case management that can guide the clients through to stability, recovery and independence.

It will be expensive. It will take time. It will require public, private and non for profit collaborations to sustain effective resources to address chronic mental illness and addictions to drugs and alcohol. It will keep Metro and the legal system focused on real criminals, and not on those who need treatment to become stable, get back to work, and have a place to live. It is a sustainable and effective approach and solution. It is also measurable and dignified. It is compassionate and thoughtful. Sustainable versions of this approach are seeing results in places like Spokane, Washington and Providence, Rhode Island.

Let us together be the answer, to our mental health and addiction problems that are the big causes of homelessness.  Imagine if we worked together to provide real solutions that are effective and sustainable. Imagine.


Thomas A. Roberts is a Permanent Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.