An uncertain future after jobless benefits expire

The portraits of his dead father are among the few mementoes Bud Meyers is certain he will take with him when he is forced from his home of five years next month because he cannot pay the rent.

The portraits of his dead father are among the few mementoes Bud Meyers is certain he will take with him when he is forced from his home of five years next month because he cannot pay the rent.

His prized collection of mystery novels, the bedroom set he was once proud to purchase new and anything else that can't fit into the trunk of a car must be left behind.

More than two years after Meyers lost his job as a Las Vegas Strip bartender and nearly eight months after he exhausted his unemployment benefits, it has come to this: a careful inventory of a life's possessions and the hopeless embrace of a future as a middle-aged homeless man.

"I can't believe this is happening to my life," Meyers, 55, said on a recent afternoon, as he surveyed the one-bedroom apartment he must soon abandon. "It's a social holocaust."

Meyers, who is single and childless, is among a growing number of men and women who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for so long.

"Exhaustees" or "99ers" — as they are sometimes called — are searching for work and help across the United States. But their situation seems particularly bleak in Nevada, where unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosure rates are the highest in the nation and job creation is at a crawl. The "99er" moniker refers to those who've gone beyond the maximum weeks of benefits available, but many people don't qualify for the full 99-week period.

More than 30,000 Nevadans have exhausted their benefits and hundreds more are expected to join those ranks this year, with the state's average length of unemployment climbing to more than eight months in December, according to state data.

The response from Washington has been muted. A law passed last month that restored the federal emergency unemployment program through the end of 2011 did not account for exhaustees.

Meanwhile, efforts to extend benefits for 20 more weeks in states with unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher have mostly met silence.

"People that are unemployed, particularly in hard-hit states like Nevada, they are not spoiled," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Las Vegas Democrat who introduced a measure to extend benefits. "They are not lazy. They are not hobos. It is just the economy is so bad that there aren't enough jobs out there."

The Silver State's unemployment rate grew to 14.5 percent in December. In the Las Vegas area, where most Nevadans live, it soared to 14.9 percent. In Reno, the rate climbed to 13.8 percent from 13.3 the month before. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Transportation, warehousing and utility industries continued to shed jobs in Nevada. Gambling revenue, the lifeblood of Las Vegas, fell by 4.7 percent in November.

At best, Nevada's economy shows uneven signs of growth, said Stephen Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"People have stopped looking for work," he said. "They don't think they will find" a job.

Caught with no income and a recurring flood of unpaid bills, the chronically unemployed are overwhelming charitable groups.

At the Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow, a Las Vegas work placement center, the number of people asking for help has doubled to 1,000 this year since 2007. Staff members can only do so much for those who have been unemployed for years, said Development Coordinator Rachel Santos.

"These are some of the hardest to employ," she said. "We can't create jobs. We can't do anything magical."

The Goodwill of Southern Nevada said more than 5,600 people asked for career guidance in 2010, up 30 percent from the year before. Roughly 25 percent of those people no longer qualified for unemployment benefits, said CEO Steve Chartrand.

"One of the things we offer is hope," he said. "Many people come in really feeling down and out and our staff will take the time to listen to them."

But for some 99ers, the time for hope has passed.

Meyers initially welcomed his termination in October 2008 as a vacation from the daily grind of catering to tip-hungry cocktail waitresses and standing behind a crowded bar. He raided his $30,000 rainy-day fund and cut back on luxuries such as new clothes and hair cuts.

But as more people lost their jobs and the stock market teetered, Meyers became panicked. The casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, where he had worked his way up from a lowly bar-back to a comfortable $1,100 weekly wage, seemed reluctant to hire a pudgy, gray-haired bartender over the flocks of young women competing for the same jobs.

The one time he was called to an interview, his inexperience with mixing mojitos, a trendy mint-fused drink unheard of in the unassuming Vegas era that drew him to Sin City, cost him the opportunity, he said.

He all but emptied his checking account this month to make rent. With the remaining $56, he bought groceries — a pie, some bread, milk, coffee — and penned a notice to his friends on Facebook:

"I'm tired of being made to feel like dirt because I lost my job," he wrote. "Only three more weeks, and I won't be tired any longer."

It was not so much a suicide note, he said days later, but a cry for help.

His friends have unsuccessfully urged him to seek counseling.

"I feel like he is desolate and he is at the end of his rope," said Jacqueline Decker, who also has exhausted her unemployment benefits. "We each have our own hell."

Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York, said it is not uncommon for 99ers to grapple with depression.

"You certainly get stuck in a negative thought over and over again," said Leahy, who studies depression. "The longer you are unemployed, the more evidence you think you have that you will never get a job."

Meyers' pessimism was somewhat softened recently by a display of altruism. A stranger who heard of his Facebook posting invited him to stay in her guest room if he is evicted. She, too, is unemployed.

He doesn't see it as a solution that can last.

He calculates that it will take three days of not having access to a shower before he is shunned on the street. He pictures police officers rousting him from the sidewalk. He wonders what he will eat.

"It's bad enough being 55 and clean and unemployed," Meyers said. "Can you imagine being dirty and unemployed? There's no going back from that."

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