Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2019

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Advocates, law enforcement discourage feeding Las Vegas homeless, encourage outreach

Huntridge Park

Wade Vandervort

Homeless people gather around Huntridge Circle Park Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Advocates say one of the problems with feeding the homeless is that it doesn’t solve the inherent problem of homelessness.

A resident thought he was doing a good deed when delivering sushi to a homeless person near downtown Las Vegas. The kindness, unfortunately, had drawbacks.

“Raw fish in the middle of summer is not something you would want to smell or deal with,” Metro Police Officer Aden OcampoGomez said.

While not illegal, law enforcement and outreach organizations discourage this practice. What may seem like a good deed in the moment can actually have long-term, damaging effects, said Metro Officer Keith Hanoff, who is part of the Metro Police Homeless Outreach Team.

“We want to encourage responsible giving,” Hanoff said. “Giving someone a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is great, but how is that helping anyone?”

One issue of well-intentioned people randomly passing out food is the trash that handout creates, OcampoGomez said. He also said food preparation isn’t always the best, which can be especially damaging to the weakened immune systems of someone living on the streets.

Another issue that comes up, he said, is the lack of public restrooms.

“When passing out food, bathrooms need to be provided,” OcampoGomez said. “We are humans, we process food.”

The result can be people taking care of their “bodily functions” in the middle of the street or on sidewalks, he said.

Another problem officers see is people clearing out their garage and dropping off boxes of food and clothes outside Las Vegas’ homeless courtyard near East Poplar Avenue and North 15th Street, said Officer Kerry Ruesch, who is also part of Metro’s outreach team.

“They drop off the food and clothes and people pick through it … now it’s scattered all over the road. Guess who’s cleaning it up — the taxpayers,” he said.

While passing out food to the homeless isn’t illegal in Las Vegas, that wasn’t always the case. In 2006, the City Council passed an ordinance banning people from feeding homeless in public parks to address some the homelessness near and around Huntridge Circle Park. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ordinance and called it “unconstitutional” and “among the first of its kind in the country.”

Las Vegas and the ACLU finally reached a settlement that required police to no longer ticket individuals feeding or those being fed unless they could prove there was evidence of unlawful activity.

Now, when law enforcement does ticket these good Samaritans, it’s typically for impeding traffic or parking in illegal red zones.

Law enforcement does not have a problem with the act of feeding homeless, rather the method in which people are doing it.

Brian Bland of Goodness Gracious Ministries said he has no problem with Metro when he and his wife, Jenny, pass out food from their renovated trailer in public parks.

That’s because, Hanoff said, people like Bland know the rules, have a permit and “will clean up afterwards.”

But mostly, Hanoff said, law enforcement wants to educate people on how to practice meaningful change.

"We want change, but let's go about it the right way," he said.

Talana Bell, who works at WestCare — the nonprofit providing drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling for families — and helps with Metro’s outreach efforts, said it’s noble for people to want to help. The problem with simply giving a homeless person food is that it doesn’t solve the inherent problem of homelessness, she said.

“It’s not wrong to want to feed someone,” she said. “If we want to make a difference though, that’s not the best way to go about it.”

Bell, who used to be homeless, works with Metro’s outreach team to connect homeless with the resources they need while also finding them long-term permanent solutions. They’ve helped more than 200 residents permanently get off the streets.

Bell said many are struggling with addiction and aren't always inclined to seek help.

“Many are addicted to being on the streets,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle.”