Home in Vegas
CONSIDERED: bathrooms, community, America, your attitude, the eight ball, mother, hardship, responsibility, bugs, war, comfort, cops, neighbors, money, bureaucracy, the kindness of trees
Thu, Aug 13, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Ted Snodgrass ran into an old classmate the other day. Both grew up in Vegas. His childhood friend went into construction. Snodgrass went into law enforcement. “I recognized him after he called my name,” says Snodgrass, a Metro lieutenant. They were out on Main Street. Lt. Snodgrass was patrolling the homeless corridor. His onetime elementary-school friend was homeless, had been beaten up and was coming out of the Salvation Army, where he’d gotten shelter. “He’d been working construction, but, you know, there’s been a lot of construction job losses,” Snodgrass says. “It’s not like you say, ‘Hey, let me tell you about my wife and kids,’ you know. We didn’t talk about all of that much. I gave him money. What would you do if you saw someone you knew out there? I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s
like looking in the mirror. I came away thinking, is this some kind of spiritual thing? But no, it’s just like looking in a mirror. You think, this could’ve happened to me.”
My neighbor’s lawn is brown and way too shaggy, tall with weeds, the For Sale sign is hanging from one hook, the lockbox on the front door has been there since spring. The home—1,231 square feet, one story, suburban stucco—is in foreclosure, like every 64th home in Las Vegas. I don’t know where the family who lived there went. I watch the For Sale and Bank Owned signs come and go on the block, hoping the neighborhood stays afloat. I watch the prices fall. I watch the weeds grow.
Vegas has always been a peculiar place to call home. Upon deciding to move here, people often get a queer look from friends and family—Vegas? To live? And half of those transplants, after living here for years, still won’t call it home. It’s as if they’re afraid that uttering “Vegas is my home” would cement their feet here. Afraid it would imply an accountability for a profligate city, or sully them by association. I’ll only be here for a few years is the mantra.
Yet here we are, in every cul-de-sac of chicken-wire and spackling sprawl, trying to save our Vegas homes. Maybe we’ll accidentally save Vegas. Maybe we’ll knit that elusive sense of community we’re always lamenting the absence of.
It’s no accident that the city is leading the nation’s housing meltdown—leader in excess, leader in loss—it’s a reliable cycle for a gambling-based city. Nevada chose a cashy, single-industry, low-tax existence and suffers for that choice with a subsequently paltry social and cultural infrastructure—the kind of social services Snodgrass relies on to help right now in the homeless corridor. The kind of culture that makes a place feel like a home.
Considering what “home” means may be a stilted undertaking at a moment when what we crave are practical solutions, but because the word “home” throbs in the minds of so many Las Vegans now, it also seems inevitable.
“‘Home’ is where we belong,” writes University of Kentucky professor Graham Rowles in a paper on the subject. “It provides a sense of identity, a locus of security and a point of centering and orientation in our world. ... Indeed, being at home is related to both physical and psychological well-being. Often, although not invariably, home is grounded in place—in a dwelling or a community in which we have resided for some time, that encapsulates our history, or where, surrounded by the familiar, we feel comfortable and embedded.”
Our home is Las Vegas, with its gilded Strip and endless spread of matching subdivisions; it’s nooks of older, more colorful neighborhoods abutted by dilapidated business strips; interstices of underappreciated historical and artistic parcels; swaths of ethnic congregations; Naked City; Fremont; a skyline hung on the Stratosphere. It’s the desert, space, vice, deal-making, celebrating, a blanket of tourists, infinite boobies, an international hot spot propped up by an invisible blue-collar machine. It’s templated Western expansion with imported palm trees and wasted water, new entrepreneurs, a traffic grid always under expansion, poor health care, struggling schools, visible and pervasive midlife crises, hungry religious communities; a cycle of greed, risk, loss—and, one hopes, recovery. It’s this and a million times more, now deep into a slump. Today thousands of homes in what was the fastest-growing city in the nation only two years ago are sitting empty, while thousands of people sit homeless on streets and in shelters. This is a little bit of what our home is.
The way Shane Watson sees it, the way to save homes from foreclosure, to save Las Vegas as a home, is to invoke a city-wide attitude adjustment. It’s July, and he’s walking side to side in the front of the Metro Training Center auditorium north of Summerlin, where 100 or so homeowners have gathered to learn how not to lose their homes to foreclosure. “We must have hope tonight. We must change our mind-set to fight.”
There’s a big American flag on the side wall next to photos of cops who lost their lives protecting this city we reluctantly call home; there’s a smaller flag dangling just above Watson’s head, as if to say, America is watching. Isn’t it always watching Vegas?
Watson goes on: “You must prepare to fight ... You cannot sit here and let this happen.” He’s a stout man with a crew cut who easily could be mistaken for a megachurch pastor or Gen. Patton, but he’s managing partner of Direct Access Lending, a mortgage brokerage firm. This makes him authoritative and suspect. He’s buttressed by a line of sharp-dressed real-estate and legal professionals who have been placed facing the audience, a mixed bunch who look battle-weary and impatient, a teensy bit ornery, but who have donated their time nonetheless. It’s a Tuesday night, and before Watson came up to host this two-hour loan-modification boot camp, everyone was cautioned that if they needed to leave the auditorium to go to the restroom, they would need a police escort, as this—the Jerry Keller Training Center—is a secure facility.
It’s a weird confluence of law enforcement, bankers and regular Joes, a scene that will repeat itself in innumerable ways in the housing debacle—government, money and people who’re clinging to mixed notions of home. The element that’s most surprising to me and yet lends the most help in mapping this problem’s social significance are the men and women in uniform. Their involvement underscores the proximity of total anarchy: When there’s a loss of incomes, and then homes, coupled with an oppressive confusion, there’s a slumbering chaos threatening to awaken in a rage. In this way, our secure facility is terrifying to me.
But not for Watson. He’s gung-ho. For him, the fight against home loss is one part hiring informed professionals and nine parts I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. It’s not so clear that the audience here is on the same page—most want practical, specific-to-their-loan answers, not battle rallying cries. But the fact that they’re gathered at all speaks to something positive, in Watson’s assessment: neighborliness.
“The way we’re going to rebuild our community ... is we all need to begin to change how we currently talk about our community. You are the biggest ambassadors for our community,” Watson says. A couple in the second row finishes their Subway sandwiches and starts taking notes. A man behind them sighs loudly. A woman beside him thumbs through a Nevada Foreclosure Information Workbook, inside which is a sample “Hardship Letter” to a lender and a blank page titled, “Now try writing your hardship letter ...”
“One thing I know about Las Vegas, Nevada, is this,” Watson goes on, “you’re lucky if you get one of these [a hand wave] from your neighbors.” He’s a rural guy from the Midwest where everyone in town knows everybody else. “This community is different. We have people from all over the country, but the problem is we’re too busy [to get to know one another]. ...
“You must change that mentality. You must take an interest in this community. If anything is going to come good from this financial leveling that we’re experiencing in this country, we’re going to learn to appreciate one another! Yes,” he says. “Yes.”
It echoes what a Metro officer said before him, that we need to pay attention to our neighbors now more than ever, that if we see beer bottles piled up—or grass going unmowed—we should inquire (“Hey Mrs. Potter, are you developing a drinking problem?”) or tell social services, or take some initiative that translates into caring about our community, our home. Just the kind of thing Las Vegans, perhaps more than residents of many other cities, shy away from. Like saying, “Vegas is my home.”
“Millions of Americans will lose their home or be close to losing their home, that is fact,” Watson powers on, striding back and forth. “And if you’re one of those Americans that will have that happen to them, you must understand tonight that you will come away with hope. Hope. Because it doesn’t matter. These are material things, folks. Right? Right? They’re material things. They don’t matter. Houses don’t matter. Your health matters. Your family matters. Your friends matter.” He’s trying to change the meaning of home for us. An older lady near the front nods with what looks like an amen; a younger man in the middle turns to a page in the workbook titled, “Are You Behind the Eight Ball?”
“Our city is pretty great,” Watson goes on. “Think about it. It’s 115 degrees out there, and we’re in here trying to save our homes ...”
Whether home is a community, a proximity to family and friends, a place of longtime residence, some psychological comfort zone, structure or wherever you lay your head at night is a discussion that’s been going on since long before the economic meltdown that tests Vegas’ understanding of the concept. Scholars around the world and in far-reaching disciplines have weighed in on whether home is “(a) place(s), (a) space(s), feeling(s), practices, and/or an active state of being in the world” or something “conflated with or related to house, family, haven, self, gender and journeying,” says Shelley Mallett in 2002 University of Melbourne treatise “Understanding Home.”
I ask Lt. Snodgrass, who’s been working in the (now emptier) homeless corridor all summer, what his definition of home is. “Home to me is my base of operations. But then, I’ve lived in the same house for 19 years.”
Rowles, the professor from Kentucky, considers that the meaning of home has shifted greatly as our culture has become more transient: “In an increasingly mobile society, traditional notions of home are under threat as frequent residential change and rapid community transitions reduce the stability of lives, make it more difficult to establish a sense of being at home, and foster alienation from place in our lives ... ‘placelessness.’ In the face of such challenges each of us tends to develop a set of personal behaviors and adaptations that enable us to maintain or to create a sense of home.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this answer to the question, which is as informative as any, by the sixth-grader who won the 2009 Habitat for Humanity “The Meaning of Home” essay contest: “Home is where I feel safe. I can relax and be myself without being judged. I feel as though my home is a retreat; I can come home from a miserable day, and put it behind me. I like knowing what to expect in my day. Every morning my mother wakes me up for school. At night there is always a hot meal on the table for me,” writes Jackson Tapp of Toronto.
Snodgrass has come to appreciate a few more practical specifics about the meaning of home since working with the homeless this summer.
“I don’t know about how you feel, but for me, going to the bathroom is a big deal,” Snodgrass, a mustached, uniformed cop, says. It’s a perspective you gain in the Hope Corridor near the Salvation Army and Shade Tree and Catholic Charities shelters where people were living in tents and under tarps by the curb on Foremaster and Main. Routinely, they’re asked to move their tents and crates and blankets and shopping carts across the street, so that city workers can wash feces and urine and trash away. The city had been running this routine for weeks, as the number of homeless people grew to nearly 300 in this four-block area—Hope Corridor—in May. Then activists brought in Port-O-Potties, which Snodgrass says the dwindling population of Hope Corridor keep pretty clean, treating it as home.
“Hope” and “home” seem to be well-connected this year regardless of which end of the meltdown you’re on. Some change has been affected in Hope Corridor; recently the number of homeless people here has declined. Some will tell you they’ve gone “home” to cities where family members receive them after a bus ride, compliments of the City of Las Vegas; others will tell you that advocates are making great strides in finding transitional housing; still others will say that “home” has become a new camp somewhere in the desert. The truth is probably all three and then some, which is how the foreclosure crisis at the other end is playing out as well. The bugaboo is the unknowing; the multiple, uncoordinated efforts by government and activists, law enforcement and con artists. If a person can hold out long enough to navigate and outlast bureaucracy, they may have a chance—on either end of the spectrum.
Recently, Snodgrass tells me, as he patrolled the area, he came across a man lying under an elm tree near Bunker Cemetery. “It was 115 degrees, and there were bugs crawling all over him. He didn’t care. I said, ‘Hey man, can I help you?’ and he’s thinking I’m going give him a hard time, because I’m Metro. But he wouldn’t—couldn’t—even move. So we took him to Valley Hospital. He was so dehydrated they had to pump him full of fluids right away. How long would he have laid there by the cemetery?” Snodgrass asks rhetorically, knowing we both think he’d have died right there. I think of the kindness of shade trees, of the small saving graces of wherever you call home.
On a different July afternoon, Snodgrass runs a meeting with activists involved in improving the situation in the corridor. It’s at a different Metro station than the foreclosure workshop, but another police station nonetheless. He’s clear that his job is about safety and sanitation; it’s up to the city and activists to make life changes. He’s sitting in a rough circle with about 20 other participants: social workers, city officials, church people, representatives of nearby businesses, at least one guy in motorcycle boots and a leather vest with a red crucifix on the back. They’re gathered in a briefing room under another U.S. flag by a hallway full of those photos of officers who lost their lives trying to protect this city. This is worth doing, the presence of those photos seems to say. Saving this city. Saving our home, protecting the belief that each person should have a home. At the same time, there’s a board showing different types of copper-containing utility wires that thieves have been stealing from construction sites to sell for profit. This reminds me that people will raid their home, their larger community, for immediate need, whatever they determine that need to be. We’re in a constant battle with the tendency to tear down what’s being built for quick gain.
This group talks coolly about the situation for the homeless, but slowly conversation turns to money, responsibility and bureaucracy, and things heat up.
“There are a lot of different problems with the money [that goes to homeless programs],” says Snodgrass. “Government gets involved, and people look to the government to solve their own problems, and they don’t solve their own problems.” He tells a story of a homeless woman who got a check to pay for temporary housing, but she called him a couple of months later to complain that she was being booted out because she’d spent the money on something else, and had been living there rent-free. This sets off a conversation about who should handle the money for temporary housing—the individual or the landlord—and tales of corruption on both sides emerge. Sometimes the landlord will take the cash and stack people four to a shoddy apartment; sometimes the individual will take the money and spend it on drugs or alcohol.
“So she’s looking to me to solve it, and I can’t do it,” Snodgrass says. “It’s just difficult to get them to take the money and spend it on the things that we think are primary.”
People around the room nod. You can’t make people be responsible.
Back at the foreclosure meeting, a couple explains to the crowd and housing experts that they want to modify their loan. “I didn’t know what an ARM was,” the woman says; her adjustable-rate mortgage is going to balloon in November. She says she worked for 28 years as a police officer and wants to live with her husband in “marital bliss” instead of struggling with a ballooning mortgage. The couple is well-dressed and older. The group of professionals is hard-pressed to hand her a satisfying answer, but several offer to speak with her later.
One attorney, Monica Centeno, says she charges a $3,500 retainer. Centeno stands and offers an abundance of information drawn from her experiences trying to modify people’s home loans. The sheer volume of financial and bureaucratic crags and crannies she describes is daunting, and while what she actually says includes phrases like this—“The reason for that is the Pooling and Security Agreement, where all of the duties for each party are outlined ... if they do something with you, they might get paid under the stimulus plan, but they might get sued by Freddie Mac”—what it sounds like is, You’re screwed. A hundred times over. Screwed screwed screwed.
I wonder if, in my own hardship letter, I should write this: “Dear Lender, I am one of several million people who don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. My hardship is a combination of a lack of a financial education and your cheating, lying, constantly changing, inscrutable ways. I’m not sure who is more irresponsible here, but I feel strongly that it’s you.”
Home, then, implies a big chunk of responsibility, which, when considering Vegas as the tip-top of recklessness in America, is not a hopeful sign. People don’t come here to be responsible. Is that true? Have we moved to this city to use it and leave it, the way of tourists? Are we people without a home? Even if it means watching our neighbors, our children, suffer? We’re that uncaring?
Snodgrass says good Samaritans frequently reach out to the homeless. “Anytime you’re down there, you’ll find somebody handing out food and water.” One would imagine that this is exactly the kind of interaction that creates a home in the larger sense, a community, the kind of thing Watson would love to see as suburbanites turn into good neighbors.
But, it turns out, some of the activists find the activities of other good Samaritans annoying. A representative of the city says they encourage people to give through organizations such as Shade Tree or Salvation Army, rather than independently, so that people are brought in to get help addressing the problems that keep them on the street. Another man says good Samaritans distract homeless people from paying attention to his efforts at intervention. Everyone appreciates the good intentions, but again, it’s a lack of coordination, a lack of understanding how best to make things work that keeps more progress at bay.
Not at all unlike the situation with homeowners trying to decipher the world of mortgage lending. There’s desperation in it; we’re talking about people’s homes, their shelter, their sense of nothing less than their physical and psychological well-being, as Rowles wrote. And there is an overall realization that something must be done, coupled with an underlying judgment: Well, just whose fault is it that you’re struggling to keep your home? Is this a societal problem, or a personal-responsibility problem? And all of it is mired in bureaucracy.
Having landed in the morass of what home seems to entail, I decide to clean the slate and visit the ideal of home, a model home in a new neighborhood—something created to satisfy a precise sense of our common understanding of home. Filled with fake plants and piped-in jazz, matching taupes and dozens of faux family photos, the model home conveys a sense that everything is under control. It’s a place of respite and self-admiration. There are giant mirrors that make the rooms and the owner appear larger and more grand; furniture is tight and clean so that space seems larger, as if space itself has been caught and domesticated. Materials are rich—granite slab counters and dark wood floors—it says home is where we showcase our accomplishments. The model family, which is never home for some reason, appears to have it all together based on their decor: The boy is a star hockey player with trophies in his room, the girl is an artist with an easel and a blue ribbon, the study is stacked with important books and a snifter of Cognac on a serious desk. More than anything, the house is clean, organized, well thought-out and executed.
I’ve loved Vegas from the day I moved here nearly a decade ago. I consider it home. But I can scarcely say my reasons have to do with a comfy sense of security, nor with any pie-cooling-on-the-kitchen-window aura; nor is it about any relatives nor any sense of identifying with Vegas’ mob or gambling history. Maybe I’m an opportunist, maybe a longtime tourist.
But I do feel the hit of the housing crisis personally and communally, and it does make me wonder what we’re willing to do to stay attached to the actual house and to the idea of our home; I wonder whether Las Vegans are feeling the call (like Watson’s) to group together and defend their community, or if the every-man-for-himself tendency will leave us a fractured, abandoned city waiting for the next line of opportunists.
I’ve been making the trip from my underwater and messily comfortable suburban home to the homeless corridor for a long time. Some days it’s motivated by a desire to help, but in the worst light, it amounts to poverty tourism. Sometimes it’s to report. Or maybe, I’m touching base with my not-so-distant neighbors. Mostly, though, I feel the way Snodgrass felt when he saw his elementary-school buddy. It’s just like looking in the mirror. You think, This could be me. And in the larger sense, this is my home. And I want to cobble together some hope.