Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2003 | 11:09 a.m.
Sin City. Lost Wages. Entertainment Capital of the World.
Las Vegas has been called a lot of things, but now a national group says the city is the nation's meanest to homeless people.
A report issued by the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless said Las Vegas ranked No. 1 on a list of "Meanest Cities."
The report, titled "Illegal to Be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States," looks at what it says is a "widespread trend of the violations of the basic human rights of people experiencing homelessness" in 147 cities in 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
The criteria used for selecting the "meanest cities" included the number of "anti-homeless laws" in each city, the enforcement and severity of penalties related to those laws and whether the general political climate was hostile to the homeless. The rankings also took into account whether local activists or organizations supported the "mean" designation and whether additional legislation to criminalize the homeless was pending in each city, the report said.
Last year Las Vegas was not in the top 10, though a coalition official said the city was on its "radar screen."
This year the city jumped to No. 1 based largely on Las Vegas' political climate and on "dozens of downtown 'sweeps' in which jaywalking, pedestrian obstruction, and other quality-of-life ordinances were used as an excuse to stop people and 'clean up' the area," the report said.
The city's leaders, however, question the study's methods and intent.
"I don't have anything to say to some Washington, D.C., group that simply wants to take a shot at Las Vegas," said Sheriff Bill Young, who also pointed out that none of the "so-called sweeps" took place under his leadership. Young took office in January.
"I can tell you we don't single out any group of people," he said.
"However, I believe in a balanced approach to enforcing the law, and homelessness issues have appeared to infringe on rights and living and business conditions of other people in the community," Young said.
Young also said he was "not going to debate the choices of people who live that lifestyle, though I choose to get up and go to work every day."
The coalition's executive director, Donald Whitehead, who was once homeless himself, said another reason Las Vegas deserved to be called the meanest was the city's "general political climate toward homeless people."
"The mayor has been cited on a number of occasions as mean-spirited and the source of the mischaracterization of homeless people that leads to the sweeps," he said Monday, while packing his bags in Washington for a flight to a press conference he and local homeless advocates planned for today on Fremont Street.
The report points to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's remarks in his 2002 State of the City address as an example. In that speech, Goodman said the homeless were "robbing people, raping people and killing their own."
The coalition has cited the remark before, and the mayor has said that his remarks were directed at some of the homeless people downtown, not all of them.
Goodman said he wasn't "losing any sleep" over the report, which he called "a rehashing of two-year-old newspaper articles."
He also wondered why the coalition hadn't talked to him or invited him to the press conference.
"I think we're the most generous city," he said. "We want to make sure the quality of life for everybody is not endangered by a very few -- people who choose their lifestyle and don't want accept help nor abide the rules of the service providers."
The mayor also said the report didn't mention the city's programs to help the homeless, which have cost more than $7 million in the five years he has been in office.
"They haven't talked about any of the programs we have for homeless families, veterans, and others," he said.
But Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada chapter of the ACLU, said the city's top ranking on the list should come as no surprise, and that the city's programs are "Band-Aids ... that can't stop the hemorrhaging.
"Anybody who has been paying attention to what has been going on with regard to civil liberties in the last couple of years can understand why we haven't come out favorably in this report," Peck said.
"The city has a pattern of aggressively enforcing quality of life ordinances in a discriminatory way," Peck said, adding that the local courts are full of homeless people accused of "misusing a bus bench, jaywalking and other heinous crimes."
A local homeless advocate who once directed a shelter on city-owned land and then founded her own nonprofit said she had problems with the report, however.
"I'm not sure Las Vegas is the meanest city," said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the nonprofit Straight from the Streets.
"It falls in line with all the cities all over the country that are frustrated with the issue," she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that advocates and local governments spend a lot of time throwing stones at each other.
"There's been a tremendous lack of communication in solving the problem," she said.