LAS VEGAS – One day before they planned to pack the Orleans Arena, several dozen Gonzaga fans were stuffing backpacks for refugees.
They also toured a shelter for the homeless and the kitchen that serves them, which begs the question: Is this any way to spend a vacation day in Las Vegas?
“Actually, I’m having an excellent time,” said Patricia Habberstad of Spokane, who was working the backpack assembly line with her husband, John, and Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh.
“I’m not a gambler, and this is the right thing to do,” Habberstad said Sunday afternoon as she grabbed a clutch of No. 2 pencils. “And besides, what else would we be doing but sitting on the bed and talking about politics?”
In the same room, dozens of other Zags fans were doing the same good deeds at the offices of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.
For McCulloh, a trip to Vegas means “having the opportunity to watch our teams but also a chance to express gratitude to your host city.”
For the Zags, that means an annual rite of giving that began when the West Coast Conference tournaments landed in Las Vegas in 2009.
“We’re just trying to pause in the middle of all the fun and go out in the community,” said Drew Rieder, director of regional chapters for Gonzaga alumni.
“That’s really distinctive of Gonzaga, and it’s pretty natural.”
Sometimes, charity is part of the fun. Last year, GU fans served the homeless by assembling hygiene kits for the homeless. The project was funded by Boyd Gaming, owner of the Orleans Hotel and Casino.
North Las Vegas needs the help.
Located just 8 miles northeast of the Orleans – where the GU men and women will play in the WCC Tournament on Monday – it’s light-years from the Strip in every other way.
Like it or not, the impact of politics is ever-present.
Nearby, garbage is piled in heaps in front of worn buildings, many of them covered in graffiti.
In a parking lot on North Vegas Boulevard, a campaign bus for President Donald Trump pulls out to a mix of jeers and cheers, but mostly apathy.
Homeless people – there are 14,000 in the Las Vegas area – walk slowly with carts and bags. They dare not lie down because that could mean a $1,000 fine, after a new, tourism-friendly law passed last fall by the Las Vegas City Council.
While Spokane wrings its hands over the issue, Las Vegas has tried to send it away. This weekend on the Strip, hardly a homeless person could be found.
Most are in North Las Vegas, a bedroom community of 217,000 without enough beds, especially for the homeless.
Catholic Charities has tried to make a difference. It has 524 beds, and all are filled every night.
The group from Gonzaga filled 1,000 backpacks, helping Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada complete one of its missions. Others include adoption services, nutrition and long-term shelter.
That too gets lost in the politics of both cities.
“That’s one of the biggest things that we’ve wrestled with in our community,” said Rob McCann, director of Catholic Charities of Spokane, who was with the Gonzaga volunteers in Vegas. “We serve 70,000 people every year and only 1,000 of them are homeless, but that’s all that people know about us.”
McCann noted most of the refugees who settled in Spokane from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were brought there by Catholic Charities.
“This is a great reminder that there are more pressing issues than homelessness,” McCann said.
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