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Sensi Magazine

Beyond Homelessness

Jul 31, 2019 07:16PM ● By Debbie Hall
“I feel people become homeless because they have been broken from the community. It is everyone’s responsibility to restore them back with the community as part of their healing.”
—Merideth Spriggs

When you imagine a homeless person, someone like Merideth Spriggs would not come to mind. She is young, beautiful, articulate, and educated. However, almost 12 years ago, Spriggs found herself homeless through a series of events, including a break from her family and other support systems. She worked two part-time jobs and still was forced to live in her car because of the broken economy and rising cost of living. Once she got back on track with her life, Spriggs devoted herself to helping the homeless with innovative and life-changing options.

She created Caridad, which means charity in Spanish and Portuguese, to help the homeless. It started with telling stories of the homeless in San Diego to create awareness and advocacy.

“I really fell in love with doing street outreach,” she says. “I feel people become homeless because they have been broken from the community. It is everyone’s responsibility to restore them back with the community as part of their healing.”

In 2013, Spriggs made a move to Las Vegas to work for The Downtown Project, providing services for the homeless. A year later, she started Caridad in Las Vegas (closing the San Diego office) through the help and financial assistance of The Downtown Project. It began with a sock and underwear drive to distribute to those in need, as well as offering educational panels.

Then the city of Las Vegas awarded Spriggs a contract to create and use a customer service based approach to help the homeless. She also got a contract with the Fremont Street Experience for additional outreach services and was the lead on the Southern Nevada to End Veterans Homelessness. Her role in the community from 2014 to 2018 was as regional outreach coordinator, which included reporting outcomes to the local jurisdictions, county, state, and federal partners. This included the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and organizations such as Help of Southern Nevada, Veterans Administration, Catholic Charities, and Salvation Army.

When the contract ended this year, Spriggs changed direction, discovering that “we realized that at the end of the day, we could be the best at street-based outreach and give the best customer service, which we didn’t have before. The data shows we got the best results with the lowest costs possible in the county.”

However, the most people housed in a single month were 10. Affordable housing is disappearing, as costs rise in Southern Nevada, and funding is difficult to obtain for street outreach. Caridad’s board of directors discussed considering a different direction.

Synchronicity occurred when Fergusons Downtown, a neighborhood revitalization project at 10th and Fremont streets, reached out to Spriggs. Caridad is taking over the operation of the community garden, formerly Ferguson’s Freight Farm. The new commercial farm, Caridad Gardens, will encompass food supply, revenue, employment, and therapy.

“It is under a big, beautiful pod worth over $70,000, and we lease the land for $1 a year. 

We are reinventing it as a jobs program for homeless veterans and partnering with US Vets,” Spriggs says. “They provide housing for vets close to the farm, and it is such a great pro-gram. However, what makes this program different is that we understand that population. We don’t want to duplicate any-thing, just fill in a gap.”

The model of using lower barriers will allow support and guidance without the usual consequences when someone misses work without notice or demonstrates an inability to complete a task. If an employee goes on a bender, for ex-ample, Caridad staff members will reach out, find out about the problems that person is facing, and provide services and help. The person still has a job, but they don’t get paid for the amount of time missed.

“This can give people the incentive to try. We are going to surround them with love and provide them with business community mentors,” she says. “If it is not a good fit even with all of the job options, we will have specialists who can help.” Caridad outreach and SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) staff will also support the homeless working on the farm. A representative from SOAR can assist individuals who need to file for disability with Social Security, and training is available.

Caridad will use urban agriculture to grow herbs and produce to sell to downtown businesses, including its many bars and restaurants, and in partnership with the Ferguson’s Market in the Alley. It is designed to become a self-sustaining business, provide employment, and continue community development. Youth living in at risk neighborhoods will benefit from monthly educational garden workshops offered free of charge.

Another reason for potential success for the program is that the homeless vets working at the farm can remain in their indoor lodging for longer periods. Other shelters, with the exception of the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, require their residents to check in and out daily. “We don’t want our farmers to worry where they are going to sleep that night, and we know our men and women that are part of the project are indoors at night,” Spriggs says.

The reality, according to Spriggs, is that “it is difficult to accomplish or achieve anything when you are in survival mode.”

Another aspect of the garden will be a therapeutic effort, especially for those suffering from PTSD. It is all about the wraparound services, including social works, mentors, and business leaders. Basic skills such as running a cash register, keeping inventory, dealing with vendors, and interacting with others will be taught. The approach of becoming part of the job force, and ultimately the community, is a big focus for Caridad.

Still, there is a long way to go to bring everyone inside. For the working class, van and car life is becoming a way of life. The fastest rising sector of the homeless population is people under 18 and families. The largest population of homeless youth in the country live in Southern Nevada. Today, for those living paycheck-to-paycheck with less than perfect credit, the obstacles to renting a place to live (including first and last months’ rent and security deposit) can become insurmountable. For those who are evicted, the challenge is quadruple because they’re considered a risk.

Her time of homelessness still affects her 12 years later. Despite the great work and accomplishments, she discovered she suffers from PTSD from the time she was homeless, even though it occurred 12 years ago. When the contract with the city ended, and she had to lay off her staff, it was a trigger bringing up unresolved feelings from that period in her life. “I would push it aside and tell people that once I got a good job, got indoors, and started a new career, I never looked back,” Spriggs explains as she admits she probably didn’t take the time necessary to take care of herself. “I needed to deal with the wounds that were caused that made me become homeless. It pops up in weird ways, and there are still days where I have to fight to get out of bed.”

The problem of homelessness is not simple, nor can it be fixed by feeding and housing people in mass. It takes the efforts of the community to understand the trauma, the mind numbing fear of surviving on the streets, and breaking of a person’s spirit as well as the complexity of its many challenges and obstacles.

Spriggs embodies the innovation and heart of solving the pain of people living on the streets, in tunnels, and outside of the city. “Nobody wants to be homeless. I ask what as a community are we doing wrong that the options offered are not working and the homeless population continues to grow.”