Program saving people from the streets, changing lives

This article was published by the Las Vegas Review on May 7, 2018. You can see it here.

In a city often noted for its excess — lavish hotel suites and multimillion-dollar homes — Michael Overton’s modest, one-bedroom apartment might not seem like much. But for Overton, who has lived on the streets on and off since 2008, it means everything.

It is an escape from a “dog-eat-dog” lifestyle and gives him a sense of stability and, most importantly, safety.

“You see (the homeless) get hit upside the head with bricks, you see them getting stabbed, you see them, women, getting beat, taken for their money,” Overton said. “It really is rough.”

Last year, two men sleeping on downtown Las Vegas sidewalks were bludgeoned to death. And earlier this year, a gunman shot three homeless men on the street, killing two of them, police said.

Overton, who has a disability from the complications of an aneurysm, had always vowed to never “depend on agencies or nobody.”

But he finally gave in. With the assistance of a homeless outreach program and the nonprofit HELP of Southern Nevada, Overton, 46, moved into his apartment in January.

“Ever since, I feel protected. I know this is something I can’t do without now,” he said.

What Overton calls his “light at the end of the tunnel,” came in the form of a small team of Metro Police officers and representatives of the city of Las Vegas and several nonprofit organizations — the Salvation Army, U.S. Vets and HELP. They are part of the Multiagency Outreach Resource Engagement program and spend their days driving the homeless corridors, seeking those who may need help.

Available resources can vary: a ride to the DMV for an ID, a bus ticket for those who have family or friends outside of Las Vegas ready to take them in and connections to employers and shelters. Or, in Overton’s case, a home.

Shortly before Thanksgiving Day last year, Overton was sleeping across from a cemetery near Las Vegas Boulevard and Foremaster Lane when a Metro officer asked him if he needed help.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been approached, Overton said. But this time was different.

“I was discouraged and needing help,” he said, and the group “stuck with me and helped me out a lot.”

By January, Overton and his girlfriend were in their home. Some of the furnishings were provided by nonprofit groups. “The rest of this is one man’s trash, another man’s treasure,” he said.

Metro Officer Mel Frailey, who has been with the MORE program since it started in 2016, recently walked Huntridge Circle Park, a gathering spot for transients.

“I’ve done a lot of exciting things, a lot of dangerous things in the department,” said Frailey, a 14-year Metro veteran. “To me, this is not the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, but this is one of the most meaningful things.”

When the bludgeoning deaths occurred early last year, the model was accelerated into its current form. “It hit our department very hard, Frailey said. “We had to think outside the box. How we could help the community, the homeless?”

Often, the homeless don’t think about their safety when sleeping, Frailey said. “Unfortunately, when there’s predators out there, they take advantage of that,” he said. “They’re easy targets, especially somebody who’s down on their luck. It’s a horrible thing.”

When he heard there was a gunman who had allegedly randomly targeted the homeless this year, Frailey said, he wanted to hit the streets. “I just wanted to go out and start housing, trying to house as many people as we could,” he said.

If he couldn’t get people off the street, he could at least warn them, he said. “Hey, guys…watch out for each other. There’s somebody out here that wants to do harm. If you don’t want to take services, that’s totally up to you, but watch out for each other,” he said.

From January 2017 to March, the team made about 3,700 contacts, getting 135 people off the streets, according to Metro statistics.

The biggest challenge is when people turn down services, Frailey said.

“Maybe there’s a trust issue, maybe they’re not ready for it, maybe they want to learn more about us before they accept services,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, they encounter the same people seven, eight or nine times before someone says, “I need help.”

“Sometimes the entire team will spend the entire day with one individual to try to get them back on their feet,” Frailey said.

Overton credited the program with helping him turn his life around.

“They help you live a normal life,” Overton said. “If you want that, it’s all up to the individual. If you want it, they’ll take you as far as you want to go, make a success out of you.”