Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2019

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Homeless people swept from downtown camps

Las Vegas city marshals swept 50 to 75 homeless men and women from two camps in the downtown area on Saturday morning, the third such sweep in two months.

The action frustrated advocates and the area's largest shelter, who said the city's efforts to roust the homeless are not helping.

"I understand what motivates the Clark County Health District or the city of Las Vegas to carry out these actions," MASH Village executive director Ruth Bruland said. "But if that's the only thing they're doing to solve the homeless problem, it's horrible."

The camps -- on A Street between Owens and Washington avenues and under a bridge on Owens west of the Salvation Army -- were established in the wake of the first sweeps on March 24, a joint action by Las Vegas and Clark County agencies.

The city cited health reasons in sweeping the two camps early Saturday, after Clark County Health District officials on April 26 recommended clearing the areas.

In a press release issued afterward, the city said there would be enough beds for people displaced from the camps, citing a recent City Council decision to fund 130 emergency beds. But Charles Desiderio, a spokesman for Salvation Army, said today the city had given the shelter no firm date for providing the funds, and the beds were not available.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman was in meetings this morning and unavailable for comment, his spokesman said, and attempts to reach other city officials were unsuccessful.

The March sweep of about 150 people from the area of Foremaster Lane and Main Street was also because of unsanitary conditions, Goodman said at the time. Many of the homeless from that camp moved to another lot and were immediately swept from there as well.

Homeless people in the two recent camps had made efforts to avoid unsanitary conditions, with support from private sources including the MGM MIRAGE, which contributed trash bags and other items, and Franciscan friar Brother David Buer, who raised funds to rent a Porta-Potty at the A Street camp.

But the city removed the toilet April 6, citing code violations and the availability of bathrooms within a mile. In addition, advocates had petitioned city agencies to pick up bagged garbage and shopping carts from the camps, but those items piled up. The city responded to the requests at least once since March.

The city on Saturday cited violations such as garbage, abandoned shopping carts and public urination and defecation, according to the order to clear the area issued by the Las Vegas city marshals.

The order to clear out was issued in English and Spanish about 5:30 p.m. Friday and gave inhabitants of both camps 12 hours to leave the area.

City marshals offered information on shelters in their order to clear the area, but Bruland said space was limited at hers and other locations.

"While they were packing their things, a lot of guys said they had been trying to get into MASH for weeks, but that it was very hard to get a spot," Bruland said. MASH has a tent with 150 emergency shelter beds for single men.

Bruland handed out 15 tickets that gave men in the camps a shot at the first available beds in the tent. "But this didn't guarantee them anything," she said.

The MASH Village official also said that there needs to be more outreach and psychological help for the people in these and similar camps around the Las Vegas Valley.

Linda Lera-Randle El, who as director of a nonprofit program called Straight from the Streets does homeless outreach work, said the recent sweeps make her job more difficult.

For example, she spent weeks obtaining a replacement hearing aid for one of the camp's inhabitants and a medical appointment to handle an at-risk pregnancy for another.

"Now who knows where these people have gone, or what's happened to them?" she said.

Lera Randle-El also serves on a state selection committee for proposals to carry out a $500,000 pilot program to provide mental health outreach to the homeless. The program -- which could raise the number of mental health workers on the streets of Clark County from one to 10 -- will be overseen by the Nevada Division of Mental Health and is due to kick off in August.

"This program is in place and on schedule," she said. "Many of the people being swept from one camp to another in recent months have serious mental health issues, and shuffling them around is just making it worse. Couldn't the city and other agencies at least ease up a bit during the coming months, until the program kicks in?"

The Nevada chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has cited a pattern of harassment in the sweeps.

"This pattern exists with the hope of getting rid of the homeless people in these camps," Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the ACLU, said.

Lichtenstein said the ACLU is assembling evidence of the pattern in order to challenge it in court.

Bruland, meanwhile, said she was saddened by the whole affair.

"It's sad being out there, and I feel stupid handing out tickets to these people. But it's all we've got to give them."

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