Annual homeless census shows increases across state, full picture incomplete
Every year, volunteers in Clark and Washoe counties, as well as rural areas, gather before dawn and drive down every street of their communities, counting the number of people experiencing homelessness.
The point-in-time count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of annual data-gathering the federal government uses to determine how much funding each locality will receive to support services for unhoused populations.
This year, Clark County reported more than 6,500 people experiencing homelessness within the county, the highest amount since 2015 when the count reported the unhoused population reached more than 7,000.
In Washoe County, the point-in-time count revealed there were nearly 1,700 people experiencing homelessness in Northern Nevada. Last year, a little more than 1,600 people were counted.
Nevada’s 15 rural counties also saw their largest numbers in the past decade, with slightly more than 400 people experiencing homelessness on the day the count took place.
Overall numbers of unhoused people across the state have increased, but service providers, researchers, scholars and government officials say the point-in-time count doesn’t account for the complexities of homelessness and is a single annual snapshot within a community that changes every day.
However, the increases arrive as the state’s population is rising as a whole, meaning though there are more unhoused people in Nevada it could be a byproduct of people in general moving into the state. When compared to the total population of Clark County, the percentage of people experiencing homelessness has increased slightly but is still below what it was in 2015.
“For me, it's more important to look at the actual numbers that have gone up,” said Kathi Thomas, the director for neighborhood services with the City of Las Vegas. “And [that] the kinds of folks experiencing homelessness is changing.”
In recent years, Thomas said she has observed an increase in families, people with disabilities and seniors seeking services.
Frederick Steinmann, director of the University Center for Economic Development at UNR, said there are multiple reasons for the steep increase in the unhoused population of rural Nevada including mines developing without communities having sufficient housing for the incoming workforce.
“This is kind of when you become the victim of your own success,” Steinmann said. “A lot of people flock in and you can't build the housing fast enough.”
More beds lead to fewer unsheltered people
Though the number of people experiencing homelessness increased in Washoe County, the number of people living unsheltered — defined by HUD as living in an area not made for human habitation including abandoned buildings and on sidewalks — decreased by 21 percent.
Marie Baxter, the CEO of Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada, said the decrease in unsheltered populations is because the Cares Campus — the largest shelter in the area and managed by Washoe County — has significantly increased the amount of beds available.
“The shelter … on Record Street held a couple 100 people,” Baxter said. “The Cares Campus can hold upwards of 600 to 700 people. There's also just a lot more commitment across the community to try to find solutions for people experiencing homelessness.”
Catrina Peters, the homeless services coordinator with the Washoe County Housing and Homeless Services team, added that the Cares Campus has added several emergency beds compared to previous years and some beds could have been excluded from the count before.
Local jurisdictions have also been adopting stricter policies when it comes to people living outdoors. Most recently, Sparks City Council adopted ordinances to the city municipal code that prohibits people from living in vehicles parked on public roadways, blocking public sidewalks, right of ways and streets as well as starting fires on public property without a permit.
The City of Sparks also expanded “the exclusion of camping in the Truckee River Corridor to 1000 feet off the river.” Previously the exclusion was set at 350 feet off the shore of the Truckee River. The city council also unanimously voted to reduce “the definition of an oversized vehicle from 24 feet to 15 feet,” read a statement from the Sparks city attorney’s office released Aug. 15.
Other Northern Nevada jurisdictions have adopted stricter regulations about living on public lands in recent years.
“My goal all along is how can we be a model for the West so we can compassionately lean into this problem,” said Par Tolles, the chief fundraiser of the Cares Campus and CEO of Tolles Development. “Get people services, make it very difficult for people to live on the streets, get them in safe environments, compassionately serve them and get them help and get them housing if they choose to come and help themselves.”
Though there has been a decrease in unsheltered people, Peters said there will not be a decrease in homelessness until there is an increase in affordable housing units.
“I think it really underscores the continued need for affordable housing,” Peters said. “This is not a problem we're going to be able to solve without some substantial efforts to increase the number of affordable housing units for extremely low income populations in our community.”
Understanding increasing rates of homelessness
COVID-19 eviction protections outlined in AB486, a bill passed during the 2021 legislative session, expired in June. As a result, tenants with pending or active rental assistance applications for at least 60 days found themselves without the bill’s safety net and were faced with physical removal from their homes.
Nicholas Barr, an assistant professor of social work at UNLV, called the expiration of eviction protections with no extension from state government akin to “low hanging fruit that we let wither on the vine.” Legal aid and housing advocates in Southern Nevada say this is the beginning of an “eviction crisis.”
Advocates also point to rents across the state being more than what is considered affordable — one third of a person’s monthly income. Extra hidden fees are some of the reasons residents are facing eviction.
However, the total number of people facing evictions in Nevada is unclear. Though courts track how many eviction cases they see, there is no record of the amount of people who move out without a hearing once they receive an eviction notice. The City of Las Vegas said its service providers don’t track the number of people facing homelessness as a result of an eviction either.
Even if evictions were tracked, researchers find eviction records vary in accuracy and often over-represent marginalized groups.
Steinmann attributes a couple of reasons to the increase in homelessness overall in Northern Nevada. Though the end of the pandemic marked the end of rental assistance and eviction protections for some, it also marked the end of a shelter in place order with abusive partners or family members for others.
“There are more people dealing with abusive situations than we thought,” Steinmann said. “Now all of a sudden, you've lifted a shelter in place order and the first thing that that person who is experiencing abuse may do is get out of that situation [but] there's nowhere for them to go.”
Steinmann said particularly now, as the dust continues to settle post-pandemic, there is no simple cause for the increased rates of homelessness in Northern Nevada.
“Very difficult to point to one or two things,” he said. “And part of it is just the ongoing disruption from the pandemic as we try to let the dust settle and figure out what the landscape actually looks like.”
Other advocates blame a lack of housing policies at the state level.
Though Democratic legislators tried to extend protections and amend the state’s eviction process, Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed the protection extensions proposed by Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas) as well as Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong’s (D-Las Vegas) bill that would have amended Nevada’s unique summary eviction process.
Lombardo said in his veto message of Ohrenschall’s SB335 that extended eviction protections would “create onerous burdens in Nevada’s residential renting market.”
In the governor’s veto message of Summers-Armstrong’s AB340, he said the bill would have imposed “additional and unnecessary delays and costs on those seeking to remove individuals who unlawfully remain on their property after the termination of their lease.”
Annette Magnus, who was the executive director of Battle Born Progress when Lombardo vetoed the bill, and others have laid the blame for the lack of reform, in part, on major donors in the real estate industry. Analyses of campaign finance data indicate that Nevada’s real estate and development industry, a perennial powerhouse in campaign financing, contributed nearly $1.4 million to state lawmakers during the 2022 election cycle, marking the industry as the second-largest donor group to the Legislature.
Robert Bigelow, the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain and outer space technology company Bigelow Aerospace, was Lombardo's largest campaign donor, contributing over $30 million in total to the governor’s campaign. Bigelow was also a vocal critic of the federal eviction moratorium, calling it “legalized theft” because some tenants didn’t pay rent during the pandemic, according to an article by the Associated Press.
Lombardo’s office has responded to the criticism saying that any accusation the governor’s decisions were “based upon campaign contributions is simply ludicrous. Commentary implying otherwise is nothing more than a baseless attempt to distract from Governor Lombardo’s historic legislative achievements this session.”
Taking the data with a grain of salt
Though economic scholars said the point-in-time count is valuable to observe year over year trends, experts advise to take the point-in-time count with a grain of salt.
“Yeah, point-in-time is interesting, you know, but it's just that one snapshot,” said Mike Kazmierski, the former head of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN).
On top of it being one data point for an entire year, scholars, experts and service providers agree that the point-in-time count undercounts the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in a given community. They point to not everyone being willing to give out information about their situation during the count, methodology changes and time differences contributing to the inaccuracies in the point-in-time count.
Kazmierski said the Built for Zero’s — a nationwide initiative to end homelessness that utilizes name-based data — counting system is more accurate than point-in-time, which notoriously undercounts people experiencing homelessness. He noted that Built for Zero displays the rates of homelessness Washoe County experiences day-to-day.
Washoe County’s July 2023 Built for Zero data indicates there were almost 1,900 people experiencing homelessness within the area. In January 2023, when the point-in-time count was conducted, the Built for Zero reflected a little more than 2,400 people experiencing homelessness in Washoe County, 700 more people than what the point in time count showed.
Though the data has its issues, Steinmann said the homeless census is a good way to inform overall policy decisions because it reflects the year over year changes of the unhoused population within a given community.
“As the population changes, we want to make sure that policies and services reflect the actual needs of the population,” Steinmann said. “The major downside of a point-in-time count is the very nature of a point-in-time count. The same problem we run into with the United States Census Bureau … This is a country of over 300 approximately 350 million people. The population is very dynamic. It’s not static.”
Steinmann said not every person can be counted as some people are not willing to give information to volunteers surveying on the night of the point-in-time count. Though the point-in-time count is usually required to happen within the first 10 days of January, it is sometimes rescheduled if there is inclement weather or a COVID-19 outbreak.
Thomas said there are also changes in methodologies each year. Thomas said some years volunteers count a tent as 1.2 people, other years it is three people.
“Some years we're comparing apples to oranges,” Thomas said. “Some years we're comparing apples to wheat bread. I'm regularly concerned that we can't tell a complete and accurate story about homelessness in Southern Nevada.”
Service providers and scholars agreed another problem with the point-in-time count is data sets don’t reflect the complexity of being unhoused.
“The complexities are not highlighted in the numbers. The solutions are not highlighted in the numbers,” Thomas said. “So overall, the numbers tell us that homelessness has increased. It doesn't tell us what we have an opportunity to do about that.”
Updated at 9 a.m. on 8/29/23 to reflect that courts do track the number of eviction cases they hear.