Tzu Chi Las Vegas Helps the Homeless Through COVID-19

Tzu Chi Medical Foundation  |  October 27, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteers give out PPE and food supplies to Las Vegas’ homeless with respect and a bow. Photo: Audrey Cheng.

Author: Audrey Cheng
Translation: Yao-yang Tang & Audrey Cheng
Editor: Audrey Cheng & Dilber Shatursun

When the glimmer of Las Vegas finally gives way to the dawn, the light illuminates the unseen: Clark County’s homeless. It is here where Tzu Chi Las Vegas volunteers have sought to offer compassion and helping hands over the years. They’ve been feeding the needy, offered them dental care in the past, and have now been providing personal protective equipment (or PPE) in and near Nevada’s City of Second Chances.

The Situation

Las Vegas’ homeless have been relegated to parking lots and outdoor areas as needed through the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Audrey Cheng.

According to 2019 estimates, Las Vegas stands among top ten cities in the United States experiencing the highest rates of homelessness, with 273 homeless residents per 100,000 people. It’s a far cry from what many believe the city promises: the chance to win big and achieve the American Dream at hyperspeed.

But, while there are many complex factors that have contributed to high rates of homelessness here (including substance abuse and gambling addictions, poor mental health, and more), the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened to make life much much worse for this particular population.

An Oasis of Friends

Care recipients line up to receive food at Friends in the Desert. Photo: Audrey Cheng.

Henderson, NV, a city not far from Las Vegas, is widely known as a retiree’s paradise yet boasts its own homeless community. Tzu Chi Las Vegas volunteers began to pair up with Friends in the Desert Foundation, Inc. in 2007, which has been on its own mission to help feed the homeless and needy since 1997. The latter group has been committed to offering its meals with dignity – a value so reflected in Tzu Chi.

Serving meals together in Henderson’s downtown area at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Tzu Chi Las Vegas volunteers arrived for service on August 7, 2020. Seeing their signature blue and white uniforms, residents arriving for meals began lining up. Little did they know – they’d receive free masks to stay safe, too.

Friends in the Desert’s Teresa Savoy explained the challenges they faced in safely providing help in the midst of a pandemic:

“The difficult thing is it was unsafe to let people come inside and use restrooms. We had to find new, creative ways to help them outside, like [giving] cold water bottles, packing everything in a box to-go. We have been blessed and we are so happy that we are still able to provide food to the homeless every day. So far, we have not missed one day. We received food from different people, different churches, different families, some families have brought donations here over 20 years. I did get some masks by mail, but you guys [Tzu Chi] are the first group to give so many masks to us. Thank you very much.”

Supporting the Salvation Army Through COVID-19

The Salvation Army of Southern Nevada receives PPE from Tzu Chi Las Vegas. Photo: Audrey Cheng.

Since 2015, too, Tzu Chi volunteers in the Las Vegas area have been providing dental care and complementary services to the homeless community. It has gathered help from volunteer dentists, hygienists, dental students, and more to relieve the dental problems that are too expensive for many homeless and low-income individuals to handle on their own. But, since the start of the pandemic, their medical services have paused to address a more immediate need: PPE.

Homeless Services Coordinator for the Salvation Army of Southern Nevada, Ryan McDonald have continued providing service to the homeless day in, day out. To keep their staff and volunteers safe at work, they reached out to Tzu Chi Las Vegas to request PPE. Many of these workers are helping individuals find a place to sleep, bathe, wash their clothing, while others are in need of food or other pressing aid.

Though COVID-19 had yet to make its way to this group of individuals, the conditions that the homeless face are conducive to rapid spread and potentially fatal outcomes. Worse yet, they can also expose those that offer them help to the virus. Many, when seeking the help of the Salvation Army, most often wore no masks at all.

Learning this, Tzu Chi volunteers swiftly brought a supply of face masks and 75 face shields to Ryan’s office. He was relieved to receive the goods, and volunteers were hopeful this gesture would keep COVID-19 from spreading rapidly among the homeless and those that interact with them.

Pizza With a Side of PPE

Tzu Chi volunteer Pam Huang gives out pizza and PPE with care to recipients. Photo: Audrey Huang.

Another compassionate individual includes a man referred to as Mr. Ladon. He has long brought pizzas to help feed the homeless in downtown Henderson, and got in touch with Tzu Chi Las Vegas volunteer Pam Huang for a new collaboration: to bring PPE, too, on his deliveries.

On August 27th, a small group of volunteers brought masks and Jing Si Instant Noodles (which can be prepared with minimal resources) to contribute to Mr. Ladon’s pizza runs. Quickly, a line began to form where Mr. Ladon brought his boxes of pizza. Within 15 minutes, they had already distributed 70 bags of food and 500 masks!

Christine Fisk is the head of the Tzu Chi Las Vegas Service Center. Her son, Roger, came to help with the distribution and help maintain safety measures throughout the event. It was his first time volunteering.

“I came here today to distribute food to the needy and do our best to help make the world a better place! Seeing so many needy people made me sad, [but] fortunately, we were able to lend a hand.”

Acting in the Present, Looking to the Future

Tzu Chi volunteers deliver PPE to the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.
Photo: Audrey Cheng.
Las Vegas Rescue Mission’s Valerie Weiderman has an in-depth chat with Tzu Chi volunteers about future collaboration.
Photo: Audrey Cheng.

Mr. Ladon then referred a few contacts from the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, an organization that serves Las Vegas’ homeless and needy, to get in touch with Tzu Chi. After reaching out, Tzu Chi Las Vegas volunteers brought 1,000 masks to their kitchen manager, Mark Maletych on August 10. This way, LVRM staff could serve hot food to their care recipients safely!

Tzu Chi volunteers returned for another donation of 1,000 masks on September 11, and this time, were received by both Mark and Valerie Weiderman, the Senior Manager of Donor Relations at LVRM. She was interested to learn about Tzu Chi’s dental services for the homeless, and, once the pandemic subsides, is eager to talk about how to join forces in that effort. Their conversation touched on many topics, and both Tzu Chi Las Vegas and LVRM hope for a brighter future together when the time is right.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there is no knowing how the disease will spread and impact Nevada’s homeless. But, when diverse organizations work together toward the same goals, as a community, we know we can safeguard each other’s health with dignity and respect.