Ben Robb wags his index finger at a photo on his laptop screen.
It's an image of a tired-looking man with a blue hat pulled down over his gray hair. A younger man stands beside him, gripping his hand, staring down at him with a look of compassion. It's a hopeful photo. But the reality is less encouraging.
"This guy died of hypothermia in December," Robb says. "He was trying to sleep in a parking lot. The week before he died, he was No. 4 on our wait list for our shelter. We've been full every night this season."
Robb is development director for Springs Rescue Mission, a local nonprofit that provides food, shelter, counseling and addiction recovery to the city's homeless. SRM started out as an addiction program, but expanded over the years into a more traditional homeless service provider. In 2012, SRM spent $1 million to expand its space on West Las Vegas Street, providing shelter beds in the winter, starting with 35. This winter, SRM had 63 beds, but still not enough to save the man in the blue hat.
The hope, Robb says, is that a $13.8 million expansion will prevent such tragedies in the future. SRM plans to expand its shelter to 150 year-round beds (focused on the "chronically homeless"); add a day center with laundry facilities, computer labs and showers; double the kitchen capacity and expand dining facilities to handle 200 people at a time instead of 95; provide pet care and storage for belongings; and add a welcome center where clients would be "triaged," or connected with the specific services they needed. The expansion also makes room for other nonprofits that help the homeless to operate on the site.
While SRM is a Christian organization, religion will only be a factor in certain programs, not including the shelters.
Phase 1 — the overnight shelter and day center — should open in November if all goes well. The timing is crucial. SRM estimates at least 240 people sleep on the city's streets on any given night. Emergency shelters have helped in recent years, but the Salvation Army recently closed its cold-weather shelter, which provided up to 170 winter beds for two years, stating that the emergency shelter had been a temporary fix.
Robb says about $6.5 million has already been raised in five months, including $2.5 million from the city's Community Development Block Grant funds. Actually, changes to the way the city allocated those funds drove the creation of the project in the first place.
Aimee Cox, the city's community development manager, says when she took over management of CDBG grants in 2014, she was surprised to find millions in unspent money. While the city had never fallen out of compliance with the federal grant program, she says the city wasn't spending its yearly allocation.
CDBG funds can be spent on a variety of projects and services, from building new playgrounds in stressed neighborhoods, to building ramps for wheelchair accessibility, to improving affordable housing, to assisting local kids in foster care. The city, Cox says, usually awarded small grants from CDBG funds to a variety of worthy projects and organizations.
Since the federal government allowed the city to keep unspent funds for up to eight years, she says, the city awarded "old money" first and left the rest lingering in an account. Cox thought the funds could have a greater impact if the city set specific goals and targeted the money — all of it — on an annual basis.
After identifying helping the homeless as a priority, Cox says she asked the community to make proposals for a homeless day center and a larger shelter. Her plan was to allocate both "old money" still sitting in the CDBG account and "new money" to the project. While the money would seem tempting, Cox says the city was asking for a huge undertaking. Initially, there wasn't a single proposal.
Then SRM leaders called. They thought they could build the facilities if the city was willing to give them time to plan the project. The city agreed, and what followed, Cox says, was an arduous process. An anonymous donor gifted land, and SRM had to invest about $2 million before submitting a proposal to Cox. The city had to work with SRM to get approval for a project that was, until recently, in a flood plain. Cox had to make sure all federal requirements on CDBG funds were being met. City Council also had to approve the grant to SRM.
The process isn't done yet, though it's close.
"This has really required being very thoughtful," Cox says, "very mindful."
Robb says SRM has been grateful for donors who already have helped, including the Daniels Fund ($400,000), Anschutz Family Foundation ($300,000), Loo Family Foundation ($125,000), and John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation ($125,000). Robb recently mailed 18,000 packets across the community for the fundraising campaign, called "Building a Community of Hope." Ultimately, SRM still needs to raise millions, but it must raise $300,000 by the end of April to have a groundbreaking.
The nonprofit plans to open its expanded shelter and day center Nov. 1. The welcome center and the rest of the expansion are tentatively planned to open at the end of 2017, though the dates are still hazy.
Robb hopes the community will come together and fund the project (donate at springsrescuemission.org) because people recognize the need. Last year, he says, when people in SRM's emergency shelter were asked why they were homeless, the No. 1 answer was that they had a disability. The next biggest category was people with a mental illness, followed by those with a substance-abuse issue.
"These are people," Robb says, "who are sick."