1 in 9: Harsh Living Conditions Abound at Shade Tree Shelter

Ed. Note: Between the years 2007 and 2011, the percentage of people living below the poverty level in Clark County was estimated at 12.9 percent. For a single person in 2012, this is an annual income of $11,170. The following story is part of 8NewsNow.com's coverage of the Las Vegas valley's poor.

LAS VEGAS -- Laid off from her job a couple years ago, Ann Johnson said she turned to Shade Tree shelter for a place for her three children to pass the nights and have a warm dinner.

"We have nowhere else to go," Johnson said.

Those nights, though, at the shelter are spent sleepless, clutching a flashlight as she searches for the insects feasting on her and her family.

"I don't sleep at night because I'm too busy … with the flashlight looking for the bugs," she said. "The whole building is bedbug infested. Mice infested. Roach infested. Black mold in this place. It's disgusting."

The mattresses where Johnson and her family sleep teem with bedbugs, she said, and rodents freely roam the dorms where the women and children sleep. Roaches and black mold are common companions, as are feces and urine spread around the bathrooms.

Johnson said the bites she received from the bedbugs were severe enough to require a hospital visit.

More than a dozen women who once stayed inside the shelter spoke with 8 News NOW about the unsanitary and cramped conditions found at Shade Tree. Most were afraid to speak publicly about the conditions, lest they lose their bed.

Shade Tree Executive Director Marlene Richter conceded that bedbugs are an issue at the shelter, in part because of the large number of people coming through the shelter on a daily basis.

A pest control company comes through the shelter every week spraying for bugs and setting up glue traps to catch the mice.

"It isn't that simple," Richter said. "Because what we took care of today, 10 more families come in tomorrow and maybe one of them was in a place people weren't supposed to sleep."

Donations are down, employees have been laid off and demand for services has spiked, creating an impact on Shade Tree's homeless clients. Life on the streets is difficult enough, more so for women and children fleeing from domestic violence. There aren't any Nevada government programs willing to take them in and few charities are able to help.

Shade Tree is funded through Clark County and local municipalities, but the majority of the shelter's money comes from private donations. Last year, the shelter took in 5,000 women and children, Richter said.

"It's a jail," Johnson said. "It looks just like a prison. Like a prison cell. You got two bunks in a little bitty area and it's this small. Me and my 9-year-old sleep together and my two oldest ones have the top bunks, and then you have another family in there with her and her two kids, sleeping in a bed with her. There is no space, there is no room.

Former client Sonja Nissen said the cramped living put her fellow residents on edge.

"There is a lot of tension living with so many people in such small quarters," Nissen said. "The kids get restless, families get restless, they sometimes feel that there's no hope...Everybody seems to get into each other's business. They get on each other's nerves."

Some of the former clients and employees said being inside Shade Tree also makes them ill.

"My kids have strep throat, upper respiratory infections due to this stuff," Johnson said. "We got holes in the wall where the water, black mold is leaking on us while we're using the restroom."

Nissen said she would see the black mold along the cracks, on the floor and on the bathroom doors, and an 18-month-old girl staying in the dorm next to hers had a bedbug bite on her neck.

"That floor, even though we use bleach to clean it, it doesn't make it any better," Nissen said.

Multiple former case managers from the shelter said they believe Shade Tree's upper management failed to stop these health hazards, including one manager wanting to remain anonymous.

"I think the bedbug issue is the main one for clients," the case manager said. "I also think it's disgusting to ask people to lay in a bed that we know has bedbugs. I think that the black mold is something that really worried me because there's a lot of people that have issues with bronchitis, or asthma, and small children are having to be in there."

The former case manager shared videos she had taken with her cellphone that showed mice in an office and the kitchen pantry. A couple residents said the mice had also spread to the sleeping areas on the second and third floors.

During a tour inside the shelter, Richter didn't deny that they've battled with bedbugs and other pests for years, and noted that Shade Tree doesn't have any janitors on its staff.

Clients are responsible for keeping the shelter clean. No matter how clean clients get these rooms, new women and children often come in from filthy conditions.

"(In March,) 52 people came from places that were not supposed to be inhabited by people," Richter said. "It's not the streets. It's past the street. It's an empty lot, and desert areas, washes. Back seats of abandoned cars."

In addition to exterminator receipts, Shade Tree provided several inspection documents from the Southern Nevada Health District. The health district had reacted after receiving numerous bedbug complaints in the past years.

Each time, inspectors cleared Shade Tree, but the health district said it has no jurisdiction to enforce health and safety measures at Shade Tree.

Asked why former employees keep alerting 8 News NOW to health hazards, Richter said, "In hearing and reading what the statements were, you can see there are snapshots of frustration - and those fester and boil over."

For many homeless, battered women and their children, there are few choices: stay with their abusers, risk the dangers of the streets or seek shelter at Shade Tree.

Johnson said she was speaking out because of the women and children who turn to Shade Tree as their last resort.

"I'm not just speaking for me," Johnson said. "I'm speaking for everybody in there that's scared to say something."

As word spreads around the homeless community about health concerns inside Shade Tree, Richter said she fears a chilling effect on women seeking help.

"I understand you need to do this story, but I have a need to make sure that domestic violence victims feel that they should still come in," Richter said. "As long as people are coming in, as fast as we get rid of something, we're going to be facing new challenges."

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