Zach Stephens stood outside Clark County Detention Center, in Las Vegas, his first breath of freedom in 15 months. In his hands, his only possession—a pamphlet given to him by his court-appointed attorney.
“It had all the different homeless shelters and resources,” said Stephens, who traveled from his native Mississippi to Las Vegas for vacation in 2020.
A bar fight led to his arrest on assault charges. When he was released from jail in January 2022, he had no local friends or family and no money. Because Stephens was on probation, he couldn’t go home to Mississippi.
Looking at the pamphlet, Stephens noticed The Salvation Army Emergency Shelter at its Owens Campus and headed there for overnight lodging.
“During the day, I would be out with everybody else trying to hustle up money to eat,” Stephens said. “After about a month of doing that, I was struggling. I asked to see if I could volunteer at The Salvation Army…They would provide a full-time bed and I would volunteer.”
For seven months Stephens worked in the center’s kitchen and then, with the help of a case manager, found outside employment and eventually rented an apartment.
Just as he was putting serious distance between himself and his conviction, Stephens was back in jail for carrying a knife, a violation of his probation. Although his return to jail was only 24 days, he lost his job and was evicted from his apartment.
Leaving jail again, Stephens didn’t need a pamphlet. He headed straight for the place that helped him before his setback.
“The second time I walked in with confidence, knowing what I could and couldn’t do,” said Stephens, who told his new case manager, Nicole Kilburn, he would only need services for a month.
“Our mission is to restore lives and give hope so he knew that he could come to The Salvation Army and he would get help with that,” Kilburn said.
She said she appreciated Stephens’ determination, but experience told her getting back on his feet might not happen as quickly as her client envisioned.
“Sometimes it’s harder for clients to find permanent housing when they have felonies,” Kilburn said.
Stephens, though, was single-minded, following up on every employment and housing lead. Within a month he secured a new job and found a room to rent.
I don’t want to settle for something when I could find something better. I don’t want to survive anymore. I’m tired of just surviving. I want to flourish. I want to thrive.—Zach Stephens
“He was at the shelter for a very short time,” Kilburn said. “He handled his business even though he had so many barriers. He was so motivated, had a great attitude, very respectful, and he was very confident in his abilities to get self-sufficient and permanently housed. He exceeded all my expectations of him. It was just amazing.”
Stephens said he hopes his time there can be an inspiration to shelter clients, prompting them to consider, “Look, he’s done it not once, but twice. If he can do it, why can’t I do it?” he said.
Stephens’ success, Kilburn said, underscores the vast diversity of clientele they serve, especially in a fickle city where the lure of riches can be bankrupting. Some arrive to the center with lost identification and need help securing those vital documents. Others arrive with substance abuse or mental health needs. Some have disabilities and are looking for resources to re-enter the workforce. Some, like Stephens, are starting over after incarceration.
The case manager’s role, Kilburn said, is to listen and compile customized resources to lift clients up.
“We’re the foot soldiers for the Lord,” Kilburn said. “We accept everybody with open arms and we try to encourage everybody by showing love and compassion to people and giving people hope.”
She said she loves what she does.
“I love seeing people thrive and move on to their next chapter in their life, proud of themselves with a whole different type of self-confidence than when they came in,” Kilburn said. “It’s such a rewarding job.”
Stephens is also a fan, saying The Salvation Army helped foster his motivation to succeed.
“I don’t want to settle for something when I could find something better. I don’t want to survive anymore. I’m tired of just surviving. I want to flourish. I want to thrive,” he said, and credited The Salvation Army for helping him on that path. “They want to help people succeed. They don’t just like watching people survive. They want to help people who want to help themselves.”
Helping others help themselves is also a new goal for Stephens.
“I would love to go back and volunteer…not as a homeless volunteer but as somebody that can go back and give what I couldn’t give before,” he said. “Not just my time, but be willing to be there and help people.”