By matching homeowners who have empty houses with homeless folks who need shelter, Calvin Leslie feels he’s doing Las Vegas a service while making himself a little money. Some neighbors disagree.
Thu, Aug 21, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
In January, John Batiste arrived in Las Vegas on a bus from Oakland. He was hoping to find work in the decidedly more active labor market here. Every day he would pack up his stuff at the Salvation Army shelter, where he was staying for $8 a day, and roam the streets, bags in tow, trying to find work. After a month of searching in the dead of winter, Batiste contracted walking pneumonia.
Six months later, it’s noon on an August Friday, and Batiste is back at the Downtown Greyhound station where he first rolled into town. He watches the people loitering outside, some of whom, just like him when he arrived, have little money and few options. Only they’re baking in the 104-degree heat, not freezing in Vegas’ bitter winter.
He is watching from the passenger seat of Calvin Leslie’s bronze Ford Explorer parked in front of the bus station.
“[Calvin] is a true blessing,” the 47-year-old Batiste says of the man who helped him find a stable place to live, a room where he could leave his belongings while he looked for work and access to social services. “He’s helping the city, the county … He doesn’t stop. He gets up at 4 a.m. and keeps going until 9 or 10 at night.”
Leslie greets several people at the station and hands out his flier. Some already know him, and ask for his assistance. Others, overhearing his conversations, wander over to ask him what he can do for them.
“Homelessness in this town is so bad,” Leslie says. “People are sleeping in the street. People don’t know what to do. We have a team that gets out there and pulls people up that have no income. Now with all the foreclosures and the bad economy, I have more people coming to me all the time.”
Las Vegas has a reputation for being hard on its homeless. An anti-San Francisco of sorts, Sin City is perpetually ranked in the Top 10 of the National Coalition for the Homeless’ “Meanest Cities” list, and the city once famously sought to limit people from sleeping within a few feet of excrement (the law was declared unconstitutional by the courts).
According to a Housing and Urban Development report released in July, Nevada has the highest rate of homelessness in the country—0.49 percent.
“These are desperate times, and there are a lot of desperate people in the area,” says Straight from the Streets director and homeless advocate Linda Lera Randle-El. “People often don’t know where to go for help, and the government services are overtaxed.”
That’s where Leslie comes in. His business revolves around the idea that there simply are not enough people or organizations available to get the homeless the help they need.
“C&L Property Management … Mission Statement: Networking property owners with the homeless and needy to provide quality rooms with care, concern and respect,” Leslie’s flier reads.
Photos on the black-and-white flier show well-appointed rooms, a full kitchen with a water cooler and an orderly living room with a long couch and flat-screen TV. Leslie and his staff of 12 regularly canvass the homeless haunts such as the bus station and a park near the Downtown Transit Center. Leslie finds these people properties to live in, and their “rent” comes from county subsidies for the indigent.
After passing out more fliers and doing some on-the-scene work with his cell phone to find housing for the people gathered at the Greyhound station, Leslie jumps back in the car with Batista and a man who arrived recently from New York who says he needs a place to stay. They head west down Sahara to see if they can get him set up with one of the homeowners Leslie recruits for. He won’t be taking the man to the home featured on the flier. Leslie doesn’t work with that homeowner anymore.
With Nevada one of the national leaders in foreclosure rates, and unemployment creeping upward, Leslie is busier than ever. Previously, most of his properties have been in urban Las Vegas, and based around the Downtown “homeless corridor.” But he’s now expanding into neighborhoods across the Valley, and more people are questioning whom, exactly, Calvin Leslie is helping.
The first time Ronnie heard about Leslie, she was hanging out with other transients in the park near the Downtown Transportation Center. She had been homeless for two months after losing her job at Wal-Mart. Some of Leslie’s employees were handing out the flier. How could she not be intrigued by the offer of a free room in a nice home?
“I met Calvin, and he took me to county Social Service to get the voucher to pay for rent,” says Ronnie, who didn’t want her last name used because of outstanding debts she can’t afford to pay while still unemployed. “They gave me a real hard time, and ended up turning me down for assistance. Then one of the guys with the county, he basically told me that they wouldn’t give me money because they saw Calvin waiting for me in the parking lot. They know about him. They know what he’s up to.”
Calvin Leslie is an outgoing, affable, lean and tall 44-year-old who came to Las Vegas three years ago from Muskegon, Michigan, where he says he worked as a paralegal for an organization that fought for the wrongfully convicted.
“I left Muskegon, basically, because it was boring, there was nothing to do there,” he says with a hint of a Michigan accent lengthening his A’s. “My mother had Alzheimer’s, and I had to pay to take care of her. I was looking for better work.”
When he got here he met Pacita Cabacab, who was helping some of the local homeless find people willing to rent to them if they could get the government aid to pay for a room. She showed him how to be a middleman of the people—homeless people, that is—and make a living at it. He connects the homeless to social services, and homeowners to the homeless.
For a flat $2,500 fee, Leslie “sets up” a property for a homeowner, organizing the rooms, furniture and utilities. The contract the owner signs with Leslie mandates that they provide a clean, safe and up-to-code residence with typical amenities. Leslie also charges a $125 “recruitment fee” per tenant that he finds.
“I’ll usually work with the owner to provide a start-up kit for the residents,” Leslie says. “You know, with toilet paper, toiletries, some food.”
Many of Leslie’s “recruits” get a $400 financial-assistance stipend for housing from Clark County Social Service given only to those with no other source of income, including Social Security and disability payments. An indigent person is eligible for up to three months of rent assistance in a 12-month period.
So a house with five bedrooms could have 10 tenants at $400 apiece, and theoretically bring in $4,000 a month in rent—way above the $2,000 to $3,000 a typical five- or six-bedroom home in Henderson is renting for.
“I go around looking for homes for rent, and I check the newspaper,” Leslie says. “Someone can make double the rent or more if they put two or more beds in a room, instead of trying to just have three people for a three-bedroom house. I have eight to 10 people in most of the homes.”
And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is all quite legal.
On Belmont Drive in Henderson’s Serene Country Estates, Ronnie and housemate Queenie are cleaning up the home they share with five other formerly indigent people. Two more tenants are expected to arrive that evening to the five-bedroom, one-story home.
After her failed first attempt, Ronnie was eventually able to get the county stipend for housing. Leslie at first tried to offer her a spot in a home near Tropicana and Rainbow that Ronnie definitively describes as a “shithole.” Eventually she got him to call the manager of the home pictured on the flier, where she lives now, but Leslie no longer recruits for that home.
“You know, they said that after all the scandal and problems they had over there, they just don’t want to work together anymore,” Leslie says of the home on Belmont. “And I’m cool with that. That’s no problem. I know they had some issues over there.”
For the most part, Leslie’s 25 properties are in Las Vegas. But earlier this year, he started recruiting for the home in Serene Country Estates, a quiet enclave, designated one of Henderson’s few Rural Preservation Neighborhoods, which protects the area from rapid development and high-density housing, among other things. There are no streetlights, and no sidewalks. The low and long ranch-style homes spread out over a half-acre of land or more. Residents seem to take pride in having a quiet sanctuary embedded in the heart of a strip-mall mecca.
Serene Country Estates, while not an incorporated HOA, formed a neighborhood association recognized by the city in order to develop a formal plan to protect itself from rezoning efforts and encroachment from developers. The residents cringe at the idea of even seeing a 7-Eleven spring up in their sight lines.
But similar to many neighborhoods, in the last two years Serene Country Estates residents have seen houses on their block foreclosed upon. At first, it just seemed like a nuisance, the un-cared-for homes falling into disrepair.
In December, Bob and Linda Neilson bought a home in Serene Country Estates, fixed it up and then moved in with their 16-year-old daughter in February. At the same time the Neilsons closed on their home, a real-estate investor, Gilbert Barbieri, bought the home right across the street. The home had been foreclosed upon, and records show Barbieri got it for $100,000 less than it had sold for two years prior.
Barbieri leased the home to one of his employees, Francis Kariuke. The home had previously been licensed as an assisted-living facility. The original plan, they say, was to get a new license and run a new facility.
But in March, “like a parade of ants marching up the street,” the transients started moving in to Barbieri’s home, Linda Neilson says.
Serene Country Estates homeowners, already worried about the nose-diving housing market, now found there was a “homeless shelter” next door.
City ordinance allows for up to 10 unrelated people to live in a single-family residence, and, since no services are provided, there is no need for a business license.
Since March the Henderson Police have responded to well over a dozen calls on Belmont Drive, for all sorts of reported disturbances.
“I don’t know, I guess some of the neighbors think we will bring the property values down or something,” Ronnie says. “They don’t like having us here because we are homeless. But we aren’t homeless anymore; we have a home right here. We are like a big happy family.”
In June, while working in his front yard, Bob Neilson got in a confrontation with one of the new neighbors. The fight escalated, then ended with the man screaming, “I’m going back to the house, and come back here and I’ll blow your head off.”
The Neilsons called the police and had the man arrested on charges of threats and harassment.
“We are all for finding something for the homeless,” Linda says. “Calvin is not working in the best interest of these people.”
The Neighborhood Association for Serene Country Estates is trying to work with Barbieri and the city to get the home converted back to a more traditional single-family setup.
“I don’t understand their complaint,” says Barbieri, who has yet to apply for an elderly care or assisted-living license because the neighbors indicated that would be unacceptable as well. “I understand their concern, but these are nice people living in the house. They are behaved and keep the place immaculate. I don’t think the neighbors have such a clean house … I don’t want to make the neighbors unhappy. I am trying my best to satisfy them, but it’s not going to be tomorrow.”
Estates residents took up their cause with Clark County Social Service when they realized where the financial assistance for rent was coming from.
“We have received complaints from residents in Serene Country Estates,” says Tim Burch, Assistant Director of Clark County Social Service.
“We’ve spoken with code enforcement and neighborhood services, and they have stated to us that the code in Henderson is up to 10 unrelated people in a home. We do realize it can be quite a shock when urban-core issues—the indigent and poverty-stricken population—creep into suburban areas. People don’t typically like that in their backyard, and it does create friction. We monitor it, of course, the best we can … That was not the first time we’ve gotten a complaint from residents unhappy with transients renting near them, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Leslie says the first and only complaints he has ever received came from Serene Country Estates, and he screens the residents before placing them in a home.
“I tell them no drinking, no drugs, no late-night partying,” he says. “They need to be self-sufficient and out looking for work.”
“Calvin used this house to lure people in because it is really nice,” Ronnie says of the Belmont Drive home featured on the flier, which is clean, with nice furniture, cable TV, washer and dryer and a large back patio. According to the residents, approximately half the people living there now have jobs and no longer use the county financial assistance.
“You know Calvin got me connected to the people running this house, which has been great. But that’s because the homeowners have been really good to us,” says Ronnie, who has yet to find work. “But [Calvin] tried to screw me first [by trying to place her in a uninhabitable home], and I’ve heard from plenty of other people that he has done shady things. I’d rather be homeless than have someone like Calvin helping me. The thing is, I didn’t even know where to go for help until I was homeless, because other homeless people told me what to do and where to go. That’s what Calvin does; he takes advantage of the fact that no one knows where to go for help.”
Ronnie, others living at the Belmont home and homeless advocates feel Leslie is using the flaws in the system, such as insufficient outreach to the indigent population, for personal profit accompanied by only feigned concern for the homeless. Yet Leslie counters with the fact there are too many homeless and too few resources targeted toward them, and every little bit counts. Leslie adds he doesn’t remember Ronnie, but that isn’t rare since he talks to and helps so many people. Balancing the needs of the tenants and homeowners can be difficult, and while the conditions vary at each house, they are all fine places to live, he says.
“You know every house is going to be different,” Leslie says. “There are different owners and different tenants. But I inspect every home and make the homeowner sign a contract saying they will maintain certain standards. There isn’t enough help for the homeless, and I’m doing what I can to give them a leg up. I show them how to get the rent vouchers. I help them find a place to stay. Then they have a chance to get established and get a job. We tell them no drugs or alcohol, or violence, and we kick them out if they don’t follow the rules. We are in a crisis right now with all these homeless people in Las Vegas. Somebody has to do what I’m doing.”
There are between 11,000 and 12,000 homeless people living in Clark County at any given point in the year, according to an April 2007 Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition report. By all accounts that number has grown rapidly in the first half of this year.
“These are hard times,” Burch says. “We are feeling the crunch, and our staffing numbers stay the same. The growth in indigents in need of assistance is outpacing us and our budget.”
The county had budgeted $6.7 million to spend on emergency medical and financial assistance for the indigent in the last fiscal year, including the housing-assistance program Leslie points his clients toward, but instead wound up giving out $9.65 million.
“We are a payer of last resort for people who have no other source of aid,” Burch says. “If they are eligible for some other program like welfare, we point them in that direction. The financial assistance requires them to provide a rent receipt. Also, there are requirements related to job training and the amount of job searches. The goal is to help you get stabilized so you can pay rent and provide for yourself.”
Burch makes it clear that the county does not contract out services, and does not affiliate with property managers like Leslie.
“You know, [Social Service] doesn’t like what I do,” Leslie says. “I’ve been dealing with them for the past three years, and they actually say, ‘Calvin, why don’t you let these people find their own way to social services?’ Well, I am the way. A lot of the caseworkers don’t like me … but I’m not there to please them. The caseworker is not doing the footwork, just the deskwork. I’m out there on the highways and byways looking to help people. I do what they won’t do.”
Homeless advocates and service providers say offering an indigent person a place to stay for one to three months can have varying degrees of success depending on the severity of their problems.
“There is a shortage of space to put these individuals, and Las Vegas has a major homeless problem,” Randle-El says. “But with the chronic homeless, giving them a place to stay for 30, 60, 90 days, whatever ... nine times out of 10 that isn’t going to work. What does that really accomplish? You are under this pressure. At the end of 30 days you are supposed to have solved this issue or problem that maybe has been plaguing you for 20 years … Unless they are connecting them to other services and getting them the help they need, it’s not benefiting anyone except for the homeowner and the person making a percentage.”
Many of those Leslie has helped, however, are grateful that anyone reached out to them at all. By 4 p.m. on this hot August Friday, Leslie has found a place to stay for Gary Glen, who was ready to give up on living near his son and head back to New York.
“My son is 11 years old and needs a father, and I’m trying hard to do right,” says Glen, who adds that his son’s mother would not allow him to stay in her home. “I can’t find work, though, and without a place to stay I don’t know what I’d do. It’s frustrating for me. I am running out of money and dragging my suitcase around everywhere. Without Calvin I’d probably already have bottomed out and gone home."