Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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DAILY MEMO: The homeless:

Street sweeps won’t solve street sleep

Once again, a homeless camp vexes Vegas, but key leaders are treating the symptoms rather than pursuing long-term solutions


Leila Navidi

A homeless man camps with others Thursday along Foremaster Lane between Las Vegas Boulevard North and Main Street. A kind of tent city has occupied Foremaster for decades, to the chagrin of business owners and city officials.

Homeless Camp

A homeless man camps with others inside tents along Foremaster Lane between Las Vegas Boulevard North and Main Street in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 2, 2009. Launch slideshow »

The recent public bloviating about dozens of unbathed and often stoned, drunk and insane people sleeping on Foremaster Lane downtown is a rerun.

Once again the spotlight is on a small number of homeless men and women in tents, and no one asks what has worked to get thousands of others off the streets.

Once again we have Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman suggesting that the city force homeless people away from Foremaster and into someplace, anyplace. Until Metro Police pulled back on the practice, we also had beat cops using warnings and citations as tools to get rid of churchgoers who feed homeless people.

In 2001 Goodman suggested busing the homeless to a former prison in Jean, 25 miles south of Las Vegas.

A year later Metro cleared a camp on the same Foremaster Lane, after Goodman declared the area a health hazard. The camp relocated blocks away. Private groups donated a portable toilet, brooms and garbage bags, to avoid the health hazard. Goodman objected that the portable toilet blocked the sidewalk.

In 2004 and 2005 there were more sweeps. And on it has continued, years of push and pull, mostly centering on the same few downtown streets.

Logic is lacking in these circular turns of events, as Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, pointed out in response to Metro’s recent push against churches. Peck recalls Metro harassing groups in 2005 for feeding the homeless in Huntridge Circle Park, a few miles from Foremaster. The ACLU successfully sued to have the ordinance prohibiting the feeding overturned. One argument at the time was that the groups with food drew homeless people away from services available downtown. But for the past few months Metro was driving good Samaritans from downtown as well.

Meanwhile, in 2005, a coalition of groups got $4 million from the state Legislature. They applied the principles that a Las Vegas group, Straight from the Streets, has proved effective: Get people into cheap housing quickly, make help for addiction and mental illness readily available, and be flexible, as opposed to heavy on house rules.

At least 165 homeless individuals and families moved into apartments or houses through the program, according to Linda Lera-Randle El, founder of Straight from the Streets and a member of the coalition.

This approach, called “housing first” by some, has received a lot of attention under Sam Tsemberis’ direction in New York, where a project called Pathways to Housing has successfully housed hundreds of hard-core homeless men and women since 1992.

Tsemberis points out that cost-benefit analyses will always favor getting people into housing first, rather than offering piecemeal services or police sweeps. Studies show that one chronically homeless person can cost taxpayers $40,000 to $200,000 a year, counting jail time and emergency room visits.

Tsemberis also notes that people’s values drive such actions as feeding the homeless and needn’t be challenged. “Give the sandwich, don’t give the sandwich — that’s not the issue. It’s a distraction.”

Philip Mangano, who as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness is the nation’s homeless czar, says communities should “sustain their focus” on what works. “Punitive approaches do not work,” he adds. Neither does forcing homeless people to do something — “it doesn’t stand up in court.”

Mangano thinks leaders in the Las Vegas Valley need to “recalibrate,” by which he means taking stock of positive results and of changing conditions on the ground, including federal stimulus money for helping the homeless.

Tsemberis is perhaps more direct: “We already know the solution ... We just need the political will.”

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