Sunday, June 20

Pass your pandemic in the sewers

Close to the sparkling storefronts of Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior boutiques in Las Vegas, thousands of homeless people beg, rummage in trash cans or staring into the void in the oppressive heat. More and more of them are living in the streets, according to community organizations that help them, but also in the storm sewers located under the city.

At the entrance to the Crossroads of Southern Nevada detoxification center, Donovan Morris, wearing a cap associated with extreme sports, manages the reception of new patients, nearly half of whom are homeless. The man with the imposing build is visibly happy with his new life. A year ago, he was living in the storm sewers with his wife, and addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine.

“It’s a scary place,” Morris says. They are thousands, like him, to take refuge in the labyrinth under the city to escape the arid climate and the control of the police officers, who venture there little. In these tunnels, which are generally very dry, the idle can set up a small living space.

“I used to cook with my barbecue,” reports the father of four, who was once a store manager. I could cook a lot of things on my barbecue, even cake! “

But cohabitation is sometimes violent there. And when rare thunderstorms occur in this desert area, they take everything with them into the sewers. “I almost died twice in the five years I lived there. The last time, I had to grab hold of myself to get myself out of the water, ”says the one who had been homeless since 2006.

He now lives in Crossroads, where he followed a route to free himself from his addictions. The facility is run by David Marlon, who goes down the tunnels every month to convince residents to accept his help. “It’s a horrible place, where there are no toilets, no running water, no electricity. Drug use is common and accepted there, ”says Mr. Marlon, also president and CEO of Vegas Stronger.

Pandemic amplification

According to his observations, the number of homeless people increased slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic. He fears, however, that more tenants will be evicted from their homes when the moratorium on evictions by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ends.

Arnold Stalk is President and CEO of SHARE Village, which provides emergency services of all kinds for those in need, such as shelter, clothing, food and health care. He believes that the pandemic has greatly amplified the problems, including that of homelessness, given the many job losses in Las Vegas.

But for him, the biggest culprit is the lack of social housing. “There is not enough housing for everyone. Where can people go? »Protested Mr. Stalk. His nonprofit is tackling just that problem, including converting old motels and freight containers into housing.

Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, recognizes that there is a shortage of nearly 60,000 homes to meet the needs of low-income families. Its website lists projects to create around 3,000 in the coming years. Its elected officials did not respond to our interview request.

Defense method

While mental health and substance abuse issues are intimately linked to homelessness, Crossroads drug rehabilitation center is more crowded than ever, according to David Marlon. For the first time, the 182 beds were all occupied last May. “There are people who are using drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with the difficulties caused by the pandemic,” says Mr. Marlon.

Courtney Johnson came very close to being one of the number. The former Crossroads patient had been sober for four months when COVID-19 forced containment and shutdown of the Las Vegas economy. Soon she lost her job in an airline company, just like her husband. “I was depressed, I was at home 24 hours a day. I said to myself, ‘This is it, I’m going to have a relapse.’ But the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous on Zoom, then left behind in parks, saved my life, ”says the one who is now Mr. Marlon’s assistant.

Mme Johnson has never been homeless. However, by rubbing shoulders with the other participants in the drug rehab program, she realized that her addiction could have led her to the same situation. “The difference is that I had parents who had money,” she says.

The sympathetic dark-haired forty-something now believes she’s on the right track. Just like Donovan Morris. “I am a new man, I am looking forward. I want to be baptized again to wash away the past, ”he comments. The tunnels, he decided not to think about them anymore. And above all, not to go back.

This report was funded with support from the Transat International Journalism FundThe duty.

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