After years of serving people who are battling homelessness or food insecurity, the Friends in the Desert Foundation has gotten a glimpse of the population it serves.
A study conducted by UNLV students looked at the organization, which offers a hot meal to those in need, and was able to identify its demographics.
“It has opened our eyes,” said Donna Coleman, a board member with Friends in the Desert.
The nonprofit started after the founding members of the group noticed people scavenging for food in the dumpsters behind St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, 43 W. Pacific Ave.
The church allowed the organization, which became a nonprofit in 1999, to use its space to serve.
It started as 30 to 40 people coming in.
“Now, we have had close to 100 at night,” Coleman said.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m., and food is served at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. The group also serves at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays and gives people a sack lunch to take with them since they don’t operate Sunday.
Coleman said it hasn’t helped just people who are homeless.
“We help families who need to stretch the budget,” she added.
Some are families that are a paycheck away from the streets and need the meal to survive.
Along the way, Coleman said the program had also generated some skepticism from businesses and people in the area.
“There is the perception that the same people are coming in every day and every year,” she said. “These people feel (the people who use the program) are making no progress.”
When UNLV contacted the organization about doing a study, Coleman thought it was a perfect opportunity to get statistics about the people who use the program.
“We welcomed the idea,” she said.
Jaewon Lim, an assistant professor with the environmental and public affairs department at UNLV, said this study was put on by his graduate students working on their Capstone Project.
“The course is designed to expose the students to some of the models and methods used in program evaluation,” he said.
Coleman said the study was conducted from June through August, after which the group presented its findings.
The report found 78.3 percent were in the program fewer than three years: 37.7 percent were in fewer than six months, 8.5 percent were seven to 11 months and 32.1 percent were attending for the last one to three years.
About 8 percent had been involved for 10 years.
Another misconception is the program attracts homeless people to the area from across the city.
However, most live in the area.
According to the report, 77.9 percent walk less than 10 miles to get to the program.
The study also looked at where people were living. The top categories were sleeping on the street with 31.4 percent, followed 21.6 percent who had their own residence and 11.8 percent who were with a family member or friend.
Smaller numbers were reported to live in homeless shelters, motels, in a vehicle or in a park.
The project also helped the organization learn other facts about the people who use the service.
In the program, 75.3 percent were male and 24.7 percent were female
The majority of people who received assistance were older than 40 with 31.5 percent between 41 and 50 and another 31.5 percent were 51 to 60.
Only 2.6 percent were 17 or younger.
The survey also broke down ethnicity: 66.7 percent were white, 13.3 percent were Latino, 11.4 percent were African American, 3.8 percent were American Indian or Alaskan Native, 3.8 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander and 1 percent were multiethnic.
According to the survey, 21.7 percent of the participants said they were veterans.
Lim said the study is expected to provide recommendations for improving and expanding services.
“This is good for the organization to know,” Lim said. “I think it will help them out.”
On the horizon, Coleman said the program is looking into starting a job assistance program.
The majority of the people in the program struggled with employment with 86.5 percent saying they didn’t have a job. Of that, 53.6 percent said they hadn’t been employed in one to three years.
“The majority of people want to get work and get on their feet,” Coleman added.
The survey found that 55.2 percent would be open to job assistance.
Coleman said assistance could be as simple as helping people get a driver’s license if they lost it.
The organization is trying to raise money to get a van to help pick up donations and also a commercial freezer to better store items.
With winter approaching, Friends In the Desert is also seeking coats to hand out to people in the program.
“With colder weather, hypothermia is a big problem,” she said. “We need coats and blankets.”
She added that shoes could also be used in warding off the weather.
Coleman said she hopes the group can be surveyed regularly.
“I would like to do it every year,” she said. “It helps us be accountable, especially to our donors, to show not a dime is wasted.”
By MICHAEL LYLE
View Staff Writer