It's dusk on a Wednesday when the wounded pigeon limps toward the mattress of a woman with full curly hair and ruby fingernails. The woman's name is Carrie Kuhn, and her mattress is in the yard of St. Vincent's Shelter, where a sea of men and a few women are sleeping under blankets or quilted sleeping bags. At the head of her mattress is a plastic carton that contains shampoo, a mirror, a small yellow plastic fish, and a can of Rave hair spray; each item is lined precisely beside the next. In a white bucket, arrestingly clean, she folds a freshly laundered towel to make a warm place for the pigeon.
She strokes its feathers and talks quietly to it, but by Thursday morning it is dead. She wraps its limp body in a cloth and places it in the bucket. When she finds a small stuffed bear in the shelter yard, she sets that into the bucket, too, beside the dead pigeon, and she keeps the bucket beside her.
"At least he was loved," Kuhn says quietly. "God loved him. So He said. It's just kind of like what happens to people, too."
Having lost all of his saving at the casinos, Burton Barney says he’d like to go home but doesn’t have the money to leave.
The shelter is at the other end of Las Vegas Boulevard from what is colloquially referred to as the Strip. To reach St. Vincent's from the Caesars Palace parking lot, you turn right and keep going, straight past the neon and the Roman statues and the Mirage volcano that erupts on schedule, past the turrets and the blinking lights and the pawnshops, all the way down to the dull low buildings with the big fenced yard. Inside one building is a dormitory for the 138 men in St. Vincent's work program; they are offered indoor housing over the course of a two- or three-month stay if they agree to look regularly for work. At the opposite side of the yard, a smaller dormitory houses women and children. Those who can't find room at either dormitory sleep in the yard, and during the day some of the residents hang out there too. "Only place you can get together and congregate," a 26-year-old man named Rick Corimby says, "without being harassed by the police." Corimby has a woman friend at the shelter and says they plan to marry: "I'm tired of being alone out here and having no one to be with me." He worked at a car factory, but things didn't go right for him, so he hitchhiked to Las Vegas after spending time in Mississippi and Arkansas.
Carolyn Lee, his woman friend, also hitchhiked from the South to Vegas; she says she once won $375 at the quarter slot machines, a long time ago. "The streets ain't so bad," Lee says. "The food's no-account here, and they expect us to get up and out at five to seven in the morning."
But what the shelter does have are showers, a hot meal at midday, and some round tables where people can play cards or talk. At the table where Corimby and Lee sit, holding hands and grinning at each other, the talk is about the slow pace of welfare benefits, the long wait for subsidized housing, the jobs that are filled when a homeless person shows up to apply. "If Nevada wouldn't promise all these jobs it advertises in newspapers throughout the United States, it wouldn't have this problem," says Karen Masarsky, a 32-year-old former waitress. "All these people came out here, wanting to make it big," Masarsky says. "Their dreams broke in their faces."
Herbert Wright Jr. spends his days in the shelter's yard, playing cards for a dollar or two a hand. "Why work to be poor?" Wright asks. "That's why I play the numbers. Win or lose, there's always hope."
Carrie Kuhn, known around the shelter as a collector of birds, and her latest feathered companion, which would die of exposure to the cold later that night.
For many at the shelter, the daily hot shower is the drawing card that brings them in from the streets
Edison Spencer sought a Vegas whose streets were paved with gold. But the luck he courted escaped him. "I get a pension check of $390 every month, but I always gamble it away."
Down on their luck but lucky in love, this couple—who declined to give their names—met on the streets and were later married in Vegas.
The booming Vegas that attracts some 4,000 new residents every month has bypassed citizens like John Ohlson, who spends his days in the shelter’s yard.
"Las Vegas is a fascinating place to shoot," says photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, "because it's full of every kind of extreme." Including, as she discovered, a problem with homelessness. "It's something that no one thinks of when they think of this city," says Mark, who spent three days dusk to dawn-at St. Vincent's shelter (page 40). "I met amazing people. I wish I could have spent more time there." Mark has crisscrossed the world, shooting for Lift, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Magazine, and she chronicled Seattle's homeless in the 1985 documentary Streetwise (LCA/New World Video).