More outpost than edifice, humble St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stands at the corner of 9th Street and Ogden Avenue in the troubled heart of downtown Las Vegas.
That’s where you’ll find Father Courtney Edward Krier in his black cassock, holding services in Latin and ministering not only to the faithful, but also to those suffering in varying degrees of coherence and despair. That’s where he was on a fine Friday morning, the last day of January, standing under a clear sky on a sidewalk teeming with homeless people.
Amid the swirl of troubled humanity, a man slept peacefully on the concrete. A double amputee pushed his wheelchair. A woman sat on the curb and spooned yogurt from a small container. A man next to her spilled a box filled with enough red apples to make several pies. Some of the faces were as familiar as family to the priest, and he greeted several by name.
At the corner, just down the street from the burned and boarded-up Alpine Motel Apartments, scene of a deadly fire back in December, Krier stooped to pick up a discarded sandwich bag. It was a gesture that a stranger might have considered futile given the surrounding litter and decay, but it spoke volumes about the priest’s quiet dedication to his place in the world.
The Alpine fire, which killed six and injured 13, has exposed city officials in a deadly dereliction of duty. With a city code complaint now clumsily taped to the motel’s locked front door, Alpine owner Adolfo Orozco finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation. Informed sources confirm that Orozco, who owns other low-rent motels in the area and out of state, is expected to be charged in the coming weeks.
It took the deaths of six poor people, but at least for now the Alpine, Dragon and other low-rent motels with notorious histories are in the spotlight.
Some might be surprised to learn the area is a safer place today than in years past when it generated one of the highest tallies of first-responder calls by population in the country. The incremental gains are due in part to the diligence of some of the neighborhood clergy and citizens who have kept after the slumlords and drug dealers who make a score off the voiceless.
For his part, Krier is well known not only to the needy, but to neighborhood business owners, the well-connected developers of the Downtown Project, city officials, and Metro officers, too. For years, some at City Hall have grumbled that the priest and other area clergy members have exacerbated downtown’s homeless woes by feeding and caring for them. The complex issues on the street have only become more complicated following the November passage of the city’s controversial new ordinance, which makes sleeping out illegal if emergency bed space is available.
With city code enforcement and fire marshal officials under fire, Krier and other members of the “God Squad” have also been chided for complaining too much and for sometimes firing allegations based more on suspicion than fact. During a recent interview, Krier tried to keep it in perspective as only someone who has walked those streets for three decades can.
“When somebody tells me I’m at fault, it’s like, okay, I’ve been here 27 years, right?” he said. “We’ve worked on this for many years. The Dragon has been closed down two or three times. The Alpine was closed down I don’t know how many times.”
But they’ve always managed to reopen with the same sketchy crowd frequenting an area known for prolific, if small time, drug dealing. None of it appears to have dampened the priest’s faith in his mission. The church’s daily outreach and twice-monthly food pantry continues.
“We’re trying to make it to where it is nice here to live,” he said. “Because we want to be here. This is where we are. You would think they would want to listen, and if there’s improvements to be made, let’s make them. As opposed to saying we’re just complaining. Because if you just complain, it would be like you’re just a person who doesn’t do anything for the community. The same thing even with regard to feeding the people, I say, look at the area, it’s nice. There’s no police coming down here to break up fights all the time.”
For those who have called the area home for several years, Krier’s dedication is undisputed. He’s doing his job, feeding the people food for the soul and stomach.
Peering out from under his ball cap, Rich Bakos smoked a cigarette during a break Friday as a volunteer cook at St. Joseph’s and counts himself as one of Krier’s admirers.
“What father does is beyond, he goes well beyond,” said Bakos, homeless off and on for more than six years and only intermittently employed. “What he can do, he will do, let’s put it that way. The city says he’s a reason the homeless are here. This ordinance is not right. All they’re trying to do is say, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and that’s a bunch of crap. Of course, some of them are … mental. Father deals with a lot. He deserves a lot more than what he gets, let’s put it that way. To me, it’s a blessing that he’s here.”
The church not only feeds the people of the street, but the residents of the shabby apartments in the area.
“What he does, the people appreciate it,” Bakos said. “Like with the Alpine, a lot of people came here from there. A lot of people came from the Dragon and from the neighborhood. Because on the second and fourth Wednesdays, there’s commodities. And he makes sure that people have things.”
But he’s not a city code inspector. He’s not a fire marshal. He’s not a cop or paramedic. He’s just a priest.
“We can’t just give up,” Krier said. “If you give up, we know that it will just turn back into what it was before. We figure if they don’t want to do it, we still have to do it. Because this is our community. It would be nice to have the support of the city as opposed to them saying we’re just a problem, we’re just complaining, or whatever.”
But, either way, consider the corner of 9th and Ogden taken. This is Father Krier’s turf.
“I’m not going anywhere,” the priest said.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith