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August 29, 2011

Nevada Families Struggle with Poverty in Shadow of Casinos

by Mike O'Sullivan

New figures show that more Americans live in poverty than at any time in the past 17 years - more than 15 percent of the population.  Our correspondent recently went to Las Vegas, Nevada, which has been hard hit by the recession of the past few years. In the shadow of the city's glittering casinos and resorts, he found that many poor families struggle to get by.

The summer heat has brought many homeless and unemployed people to a cooling station run by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.  

Former construction worker Richard Scanlon is disabled, but says many able-bodied friends are out of work.  

"Ten, 15 years ago, if you couldn't get a job in Vegas, you weren't looking for one.  Now it's tough," said Scanlon.

Some families get help from Family Promise, a national charity that finds temporary shelter and helps people get jobs and apartments.

Cassendra Waller is a mother of two who moved into a new apartment and got help to furnish it.  

"When you get a job and you're making a minimum wage, how do you pay a babysitter for two kids every day?  I wound up homeless several times, and this is the worst I've seen the homelessness in Vegas," said Waller.

Director Terry Lindemann explains that Family Promise of Las Vegas works with religious organizations that offer short-term housing.

"We bring together Catholics, Protestants, Jewish congregations, Muslims to open up their congregations at night to be overnight shelters," Lindemann said.

NaDeeryah Yehudah Edward, a mother of three, went through the program.  She sobbed when she first spoke to the director on the phone.

"She said, 'I can't understand what you're saying, but whoever this is, I'm going to help you.'  And she kept saying that.  'I'm going to help you, don't worry, I'm going to help you.'  And she helped us," said Edward.

Edward now has an apartment and is studying to become a chef.

Homelessness and poverty are hardest on children.  More than 6,000 students are homeless in Las Vegas.  A federal program helps provide school materials and supplies like toothpaste.  Many more children get free or subsidized meals.

Tourism drives the economy here.  Economist Stephen Brown at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says it is starting to pick up.  But he says that won't offset the crash of the U.S. housing market, which reversed years of growth in Las Vegas.

The state has the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 12.9 percent, and the highest home foreclosure rate.

"So what we really need is for the forces that were pushing population to Las Vegas in the past to resume," Brown explained.  "And that really means that the whole U.S. economy needs to get moving again."

Terry Lindemann at Family Promise says politicians don't understand the problem.  

"I believe that every politician in America today, to be able to help and advocate for this issue of poverty and homelessness, should check into a rescue mission on a Sunday afternoon, give up their ID, go in just as a homeless person would, travel this situation for a week, and then see the dilemma," said Lindemann.

Lindemann says the economy needs to improve, but in the meantime, those at the bottom are desperate and that charities like hers are doing what they can to help.