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Las Vegas’ Homeless Problem Is Partly of Its Own Making

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This gambling boom town helped make Grant Thornton the man he is today, and now it’s not quite sure how best to help him and those who share his plight.

As a successful concrete contractor riding the wave of new construction, Thornton owned a big home, a ski boat to play at Lake Mead and off-road vehicles to play in the desert.

But he also liked to play in the casinos.

And over the years, he funneled his wealth down the slots of the gambling machines that drive this town.

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One day, when he was down to his last quarter, he changed it for five nickels, and then he bet his last nickel.

Today, the 61-year-old Thornton, a Las Vegas native, once a big guy in town, is living in a homeless shelter.

He offers a face of Las Vegas not generally visible to the millions of tourists who come to enjoy the lights and excitement, a face confronting civic leaders with a political conflict that is coming to a head:

What to do with the city’s estimated 7,000 homeless people, including those destitute because of gambling?

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Because the greater Las Vegas area has no single strategy, more than 100 representatives of government, social service agencies, business and the homeless themselves gathered at a downtown hotel recently for a summit to address the problem. The meeting, said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, was the largest of its type held here.

No consensus was reached because participants huddled in separate discussion groups; their proposals and suggestions will be compiled in coming weeks. Participants were told to expect to meet monthly for the remainder of this year and into next before a regionwide strategy can be adopted.

Despite requests by a neutral moderator that everyone at the meeting put aside political differences, there was still bickering. City officials, for instance, argued against the showing of a county-produced video because it showed only county efforts to confront the problem of homelessness.

Little Hope for Progress at Summit

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Such infighting was predicted even before the summit was held.

“Las Vegas’ approach to the homeless problem is chaotic, and I’m not optimistic at all that the summit will help,” said Father Joe Carroll, whose MASH Village--on 10 acres of city-owned property here--operates a crisis intervention and resources center for the homeless. “I think it’ll turn out to be a lot of finger-pointing at everybody.”

Services at the MASH facility range from veterans and welfare assistance to phone banks for job seekers and classes for alcohol, drug and gambling addicts. But its presence, along with that of several homeless shelters, also attracts the hard-core homeless.

Community leaders face two fundamental issues: whether homeless services should continue to be concentrated a few blocks from City Hall, much to the consternation of nearby residents, and whether the various local governments are funding their fair share of homeless programs.

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Goodman said he feels no responsibility to the healthy but chronic homeless who reject help, and wants to run them out of town “like the old Wild West sheriff.”

Those who are hobbled by mental illness and addictions, or who are financially busted or escaping an abusive relationship, deserve compassion, the mayor said. But as that homeless population grows, he said, it needs to be served elsewhere.

“Our homeless corridor has burgeoned to the point where Las Vegas has a reputation as being a haven for the homeless, and I’m going to put an end to that reputation,” he pledged.

Goodman said he doesn’t want to dismantle the various shelters and service organizations that have anchored themselves here within a few blocks of one another.

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“But under no circumstances will that present area be expanded,” he said. Rather, new or expanded services should “be in an area that will not disrupt the economic development and the quality of life of abutting neighbors. We need to develop another area where they can go. But it’s not going to be in my city.”

City Councilman Gary Reese shares Goodman’s frustration. He suggested last month that Las Vegas has been so successful in providing services to the homeless that it is now overwhelmed by a problem of its own creation.

“I’ve been sitting up here for six years,” he said at a City Council meeting, “and we had a small problem [at the beginning of that time]. Now, we’ve done so much, we’re getting them from Salt Lake City and Atlanta. They’re saying, ‘Go to Vegas.’

“Enough is enough. The better we make it, the more [homeless] we’re going to have. I’m through. I’m not giving anymore.”

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Gambling Victims Pose Special Problem

Las Vegas has the same problems as major cities across the country: a chronic shortage of beds at homeless shelters and, more fundamentally, uncertainty over how best to help the functioning homeless get back on their feet with jobs and permanent housing.

But Las Vegas also has a problem long endemic here but growing nationwide: how to help those who have lost their homes through gambling.

Carroll is a Roman Catholic priest whose homeless shelter and resources center here, which opened in 1995, was modeled on one he established in San Diego.

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Given the California city’s proximity to a racetrack and Indian reservation casinos, he said, “we’re seeing [gambling-addicted homeless] in San Diego too.”

Experts in Las Vegas are unsure how many people are homeless directly or partly because of pathological gambling. In two surveys here, about 25% of the homeless have acknowledged a gambling problem.

“It’s not an uncommon thing at all, to lose your home through gambling,” said Rob Hunter, who directs the intensive outpatient program for the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center here. “I see it a lot more often than I wish I did.”

Said Ed Atchison, a Veterans Affairs counselor who works with the homeless: “People like Grant Thornton represent a segment of the homeless population that Las Vegas would like to ignore. We need to place that issue on the front burner.”

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Salvation Army officials say they are trying to do just that.

“When we look at the people we treat in our addiction facilities, we’re hearing the word ‘gambling’ more than we used to,” said Charlie Desiderio, the organization’s development manager. “We’ve concluded we need to take a harder look at the gambling aspect of addictions in dealing with the homeless.”

That issue, Desiderio said, needs to be addressed by others as well.

While Las Vegas attracts the down and out because of its mostly hospitable climate, relatively affordable housing and the lure of jobs, many are drawn here by the fantasy of striking a jackpot to reverse bad fortunes.

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They include the likes of Dan Miller, 53, who in the wake of a divorce moved here from Chicago 10 months ago, lost all his money gambling and today lives at the Salvation Army facility--a clean complex of beige and white stucco one- and two-story dormitories and apartment buildings abutting railroad tracks.

Miller remembers the day he cashed in his return bus ticket so he could use the money to gamble.

“It was a sickening feeling,” he said. “I realized I had no way out of Las Vegas.”

Another Salvation Army shelter resident, Millard Lambert, 52, flew into Las Vegas 20 years ago to attend a convention and never left.

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“Gambling got a hold of me,” he said. He too lost all his money.

Personal Life Just Destroyed

Thornton’s doomed duet with gambling began when he was a 9-year-old sneaking quarters into slots in convenience stores.

As a successful contractor, he embraced high-stakes gambling, and it crushed him, costing him his marriage, his business and his relationship with his parents, from whom he stole money.

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Thornton entered the Salvation Army program three months ago, receiving room and board and a $14 weekly stipend in exchange for working 40 hours a week as a janitor in the facility’s dining room.

He sleeps in a five-bed dorm, attends 15-minute devotions daily and participates in twice-weekly group counseling sessions. Friday nights are set aside for Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

“It’s not that I’m particularly uncomfortable here,” he said. “But I’d like to get out. I don’t want to still be here a month from now.”


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