13 Investigates


Dozens of cities embrace tiny homes for the homeless; officials in Southern Nevada bulldoze them

Posted at 4:13 PM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-20 13:33:48-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — On any given night, over 5,000 people are living on the streets in Southern Nevada.

More than 10,000 will experience homelessness at some point each year.

13 Investigates continues with more on how a solution that's helped thousands of people in dozens of other cities has been rejected here in our valley.

PART ONE: Officials in Nevada demolish tiny homes built for homeless in Las Vegas

"I can put my belongings down. I'm safe," says Angela who's been homeless for several years. "I don't have to be around pimps. I don't have to be with dope pushers."

A roof over your head, a door you can lock, and a sense of safety is what advocates say is fundamental to breaking out of homelessness.

"Well, being homeless is a struggle," says Angela.

Many exist in constant survival mode.

"Homelessness itself is a full time job," says Erik de Buhr, co-founder of Community Supported Shelters in Eugene, Oregon.

"You have to think about where you're going to eat that day," de Buhr explains. "How are you going to clean your clothes? How are you going to move around your stuff? How are you going to protect your stuff? Where are you going to sleep? How are you going to rest?"

"And it's tough, you know, because you're treated like nothing in the streets," says Angela.

The idea of providing tiny shelters to the homeless isn't new. They've been doing it in Eugene, Oregon for nearly a decade.

"By providing for people a place--to have a locking, safe place where they can have some stuff and sleep," says de Buhr. "That eliminates a lot of the work of being homeless and people can start to get their head on straight and thinking about, 'Okay, What next steps can I take to improve my situation?'"

Eugene's first tiny home community was established in 2013.

And now from coast to coast, dozens of cities are embracing a variety of tiny home solutions.

There are numerous sites in the Los Angleles area. Denver has them too.

They're in Kansas City, Detroit and Nashville. Tampa, Florida and Syracuse, New York.

Pallet Shelter, one of several companies producing small modular homes, tells 13 Investigates they provided structures to 76 sites in over 40 cities.

There's even one in Reno but here in Clark County, on April 12th, the city of North Las Vegas bulldozed a group of tiny homes built on private property owned by Joseph Lankowski and his group, New Leaf. It's where Angela, Savage and Allen were beginning to rebuild their lives.

"It was a blessing. It was a blessing," says Angela.
Darcy Spears: "What did it mean to you to have this opportunity? What did it represent for you looking forward in your life?"

Angela: "For one, achievement. Being human. And loved."

The destruction cost them the key things they need to get out of homelessness.

"Social Security card, birth certificate. It took me forever to get these things," says Savage.

There was no complaint filed by nearby residents or businesses. Code enforcement took action after a city employee saw a fence made from recycled pallets and reported it.

North Las Vegas code enforcement officials got a warrant that gave them the go-ahead to, "remove, demolish and dispose of all non-permitted or deteriorated structures" according to a warrant signed by a judge.

North Las Vegas declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview, providing a statement instead

"We had first aid kits. We had water," Angela says. "They were going to install showers."

Lankowski says he tried to find the process for zoning and permits.

"And we ran into a dead end because there is no zoning," Lankowski says. "There is no zoning for what we're trying to do."

With donated materials, he and his group of volunteers decided to build first, ask forgiveness later.

"The need is just too great out here," says Lankowksi.

He was hit with several code violations in April of this year, saying his group was fixing some and appealing others. The group was expecting due process but getting demolition instead.

"I'm angry! I'm hurt! Mad. It's sad," says Angela. "The whole damn thing is just sad. You take us from something and put us back. It's just sad."

Having consulted with Community Supported Shelters in Eugene, Lankowski thought North Las Vegas would see he could make something similar work for the homeless here.

"Walls, roof, carpeting," says Allen. "Everything was right. It was right."

13 Investigates talked with the Mayor of Eugene, Lucy Vinis. She says tiny home sites there haven't blown up into shanty towns or became a major safety problem.

"The opposite has been the result because we've made a commitment as a city to invest in the facilities that we need in order to enable these to be safe places," says Mayor Vinis.

An investment mayor vinis says actually saves tax dollars.

"Just health cost alone, just visits to the emergency room alone," says Mayor Vinis. "When you consider the costs of public safety."

And there is cost for public works to clean up encampments.

"We have to make those investments now because the costs just keep building," Mayor Vinis explains. "It doesn't go away."

Mayor Vinis says it's also a huge relief for law enforcement.

"This is absolutely what our police department wants," says Mayor Vinis. "These sites, once they're established, they're clean, they're safe, they're well managed. There is no negative impact on the community at all."

It's important to note, officials here tell us the city's homeless outreach team has connected with Angela, Savage and Allen.

"All they give you is bullsh*t. Excuse my language," says Angela.

Angela is beyond frustrated with the seemingly endless wait for real help and approval for housing.

"We're going to put you on this list and we're going to go and check on you. But it's always pending," Angela explains. "They give you a granola bar and a bottle of water and just, 'Have a nice day,' you know."

Advocates say that points to the overall problem of how homelessness is approached in the valley.

Darcy Spears: "They need a leg up to be more productive citizens. And it sounds like the city cut that leg off at the knee."

Lankowski: "Absolutely. You know, they need a....not a handout, but a hand up. And that's what we're trying to do is help lift them up. And what the local government's approach is, unfortunately, is kicking people while they're down, you know, by criminalizing homelessness, making it illegal to be homeless."

No one expects tiny homes to be the solution for everyone who is homeless. It's just one piece in a mosaic.

"It's not just a hope and a prayer," says Mayor Vinis. "It is confidence in human beings, that if you give them an opportunity and you support them, they can begin to build a better life for themselves."

A message the folks who briefly lived here hope our city will take to heart.

"We had so many dreams and opportunities and plans," says Angela. "And they just took it like, you know, we are trash. And that's how I feel they they they're treating us... like we're trash and we don't deserve to have a place to live."

In addition to North Las Vegas, we reached out to the City of Las Vegas and NDOT. Both were involved with destruction of shelters near I-15.

NDOT provided the following statement:

NDOT's top priority is the public safety of all Nevadans and visitors, while still facilitating relocation assistance and resources for displaced individuals.

The decision to pursue this abatement was intended to ensure the safety and welfare of both the homeless and surrounding community due to significant biohazard concerns, including bodily waste, debris and intravenous drug paraphernalia accumulating inside drainage channels that feed into the Las Vegas Wash.

Other concerns included potential pedestrian-vehicle hazards from crossing the interstate, walking alongside the shoulder and/or encamping within the Union Pacific Railroad corridor, as well as obstructed driver sightlines.

We will continue to work with government and community partners to ensure that any necessary clean-up efforts are conducted responsibly.

City of Las Vegas provided this statement:

The city did have a crew out back in Nov. 2020 in the city of Las Vegas portion of the right-of-way cleaning that area and making repairs to fencing. The area had quickly become unsanitary and was a public health concern. The two structures in the city of Las Vegas jurisdiction were not permitted or inspected. The city of Las Vegas portion of the right-of-way includes signage noting that this is not a safe area to camp. In addition to our maintenance crew, the city also had members of the MORE Team out to assist any homeless individuals. The city of course accepts anyone who needs help at our Courtyard Homeless Resource Center where we work to help people get healthy, housed and hired.

We also reached out to elected officials who say this is an opportunity to find a process to make this work in Clark County.

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