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June 12, 2021

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Following tense meeting, Las Vegas council approves homeless ordinance

Punitive Homeless Ordinance Meeting at City Council

Christopher DeVargas

Attendees at a Las Vegas City Council meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, show their disapproval for a city ordinance that would criminalize sleeping in public areas downtown when beds are available at established shelters.

Punitive Homeless Ordinance Meeting at City Council

Members of the community have gathered at Las Vegas City Hall during a city council meeting to show their disapproval for a city ordinance being considered that will criminalize sleeping and resting in public areas downtown and surrounding areas Wed. Nov. 6, 2019. Launch slideshow »

In an attempt to address homelessness, the Las Vegas City Council approved 5-2 a controversial ordinance Wednesday that will ban camping, sleeping and similar activities throughout downtown and in residential areas.

Proposed by Mayor Carolyn Goodman, the measure will make it a misdemeanor to rest, sleep, lie down, use a blanket, camp or “lodge” in public rights of way adjacent to residential properties, in 12 downtown-area districts, or within 500 feet of a food processing facility. The goal of the ordinance is to connect the thousands of homeless people who reside in Las Vegas to services in order to get them off the streets, according to the city.

Mayor Pro Tempore Michele Fiore, Councilwoman Victoria Seaman and Councilmen Cedric Crear and Stavros Anthony joined Goodman in voting for the measure. Councilwoman Olivia Diaz and Councilman Brian Knudsen voted against it.

“The ordinance is not to prosecute homelessness and put people in jail. It’s a tool to help them get where they need to go and stop the encroachment on downtown residences and downtown businesses, where too many people now sleep and defecate in doorways,” Seaman said.

The final vote came after several hours of comments from members of the public, most of whom were against the ordinance and decried it as inhumane, impractical and discriminatory. Some of those in attendance who opposed the measure sparred verbally with Goodman and other council members at various points, and at least three people were kicked out by Goodman for commenting, snapping their fingers or raising their hands while others spoke.

The ordinance will only be enforced when shelters and the city-run Courtyard Homeless Resource Center have reached capacity. Under the ordinance, Metro offices will be required to inform offenders that they are in violation of the law and that they must relocate to one of the resource centers or to an area outside the ban’s jurisdiction. Districts subject to the so-called camping ban include Fremont Street, the Arts District, the Historic Westside, the Medical District and other surrounding neighborhoods.

The measure will begin to go into effect Sunday. Starting Feb. 1, 2020, offenders who refuse services or to relocate will be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for up to six months.

Critics, including homeless resource providers, residents and the homeless themselves, said Wednesday that the ordinance will criminalize the indigent and force people into shelters and the Homeless Courtyard, both of which may be unsuitable or undesirable environments for some homeless people. They also raised questions about the logistics of the ordinance and said that there aren’t enough beds in area shelters.

“The city will not be able to arrest its way out of the local homelessness problem,” said Arash Ghafoori, executive director of Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth. “We do not have enough adequate, diversified resources for all homelessness populations.”

Despite the criticisms, Goodman defended the measure, calling it a “flawed” but necessary step to address a complicated, longstanding issue in Las Vegas.

“We have had meetings for 20 years on this very subject, and I can assure you, you walk into a room where round tables are set up and you know we’re going to have another meeting and another conversation,” Goodman said. “So, I ask for this ordinance to be a step.”

Opposing forces clash at unusually long meeting

Opponents of the ordinance rallied outside City Hall Wednesday morning before flooding into the council chambers at the start of the meeting, many holding signs that read “poverty is not a crime” and other anti-ordinance messages. Before the start of public comment, they chanted phrases such as, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “If we don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace!”

At least 50 people spoke during the meeting to oppose the ordinance, compared to 16 who spoke in favor. Public comment lasted for over four hours.

Opponents included many of the major homelessness service providers, including the Nevada Homeless Alliance, Lutheran Social Services of Nevada, Veterans Village and HELP of Southern Nevada. Some asked the city to reconsider the measure and work with them to create a better solution.

“Can you please give us an opportunity as providers to meet with you and discuss other solutions? That’s all I’m saying,” said Armena Mkhitaryan, executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Nevada.

Two elected officials also publicly opposed proposal: Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones and Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas). Jones invited the council to collaborate with the commission on regional solutions to homelessness. Both local bodies are currently involved in a working group created by the Nevada Legislature this year that is tasked with trying to solve homelessness in Southern Nevada.

“I want to re-register our offer from the county commission to work with the council,” Jones said.

Residents of the city of Las Vegas and surrounding communities were well-represented in the anti-ordinance camp as well. Summerlin resident Eva Love described the measure as “absolutely wrong.”

“There is nothing being done to actually give housing or help with housing,” Love said.

Public defender John Piro questioned the city’s assertion that the measure will have “no fiscal impact” because of the high costs associated with detaining people in local jails.

“I’ll be helping represent the people you arrest with this ordinance,” Piro said. “We cannot incarcerate our way out of this public health crisis.”

Many of the people who criticized the measure identified as homeless or formerly homeless. Ron Moore, a homeless Las Vegas resident, joked that the bill suggests that he has been on a “four-city, three-state crime spree this year.”

“I confess that during my homelessness, I found myself tired, and sat down and even slept on the street,” Moore said.

Multiple homeless people who said they have jobs characterized the measure as particularly punitive for them. Beds in some of the shelters and homeless facilities fill up quickly or by certain times of day, creating challenges for the working homeless who still need a place to stay.

In response to the story of one working homeless man, Goodman replied, “Thank you. Stay with it, keep trying.” The comment was met with boos from some in attendance.

Those speaking in favor of the measure included representatives of the downtown Las Vegas business community, Metro Police officers and a handful of residents. Most described the ordinance as one of many tools needed to tackle homelessness in a comprehensive manner.

Patrick Hughes, CEO of the Fremont Street Experience, said homeless encampments downtown create sanitation concerns and harm businesses.

“As you all know, there are many, many investments occurring downtown for many businesses,” Hughes said. “We need to protect those because their doorways are being hampered right now.”

Some pro-ordinance residents said the measure is needed to make streets cleaner and safer and that the claims about the ordinance as inhumane were overstated.

“The ordinance does not displace the homeless. Rather, it makes it prohibitive to encamp on private property when there’s room at the courtyard homeless resource center,” said Pauline Lee, who says she is an attorney and volunteer with Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army. “This is a practical first step.”

Las Vegas officials: Ordinance is well-researched and planned

Although the issue isn’t new, homelessness has been on the rise in Southern Nevada, creating public health and safety concerns, said City Attorney Brad Jerbic. He gave a detailed presentation on the issue during the council meeting, outlining the driving forces behind the ordinance and why the city believes it can help the problem.

“This is an incredibly complicated issue, so to look at it, you have to look at every single piece of it,” Jerbic said.

In addition to connecting the homeless to services, the ordinance will help the city tackle sanitation issues that Jerbic says are being caused by homeless encampments. These include rodent and mosquito infestations; drug paraphernalia, food and trash being left in public spaces; and out-of-control fires started by homeless people trying to keep warm.

Jerry Walker, director of operations and maintenance for the city, said that his department gets calls daily from residents complaining about “personal and property safety” relating to homelessness. Most of the fire-related calls that Las Vegas Fire and Rescue receive are the result of fires in homeless encampments, Walker added.

In downtown especially, homeless encampments and public defecation and urination by the homeless are harming residents and businesses alike, Jerbic emphasized.

“Can you imagine anybody wanting a tent on their sidewalk or in front of their house and what that would do to their property values?” Jerbic said.

The city will take steps to ensure that the ordinance has legal standing and is carried out as intended, said Deputy City Attorney Jeff Dorocak. It will establish a policy for contacting shelters and determining when they are full, he said. Compared to a Boise, Idaho, ordinance that was ruled unconstitutional by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year, Las Vegas’ ordinance makes clear that homeless people will not be jailed or ticketed if there’s nowhere for them to go, Dorocak added.

“The ordinance we’ve drafted and put in front of you today, we believe, is viable, is enforceable and we believe in every key aspect with respect to the Boise ordinance, is different,” he said.

City staff and council members in support of the ordinance said the measure is based on laws passed in other cities and that they have been researching best practices to address homelessness throughout the country.

“We do not have a knowledge gap. What we have is a resource gap,” said Lisa Morris-Hibbler, chief community services officer for the city.

Diaz and Knudsen nonetheless raised questions about whether the measure will reduce homelessness or just push it to other neighborhoods where the encampment ban won’t be enforced. Knudsen also questioned whether the homeless are truly impeding the business community downtown, which he described as “booming.”

“I have not seen it impact negatively the downtown business community,” Knudsen said.

Diaz said she is concerned about how the ordinance could impact neighborhoods not covered by the ban and stress resources and service providers in the valley, including Metro Police.

“We need to focus on transitional and affordable housing. We do need to look at ways that we can provide case workers to get people back on the right track,” Diaz said.

Both stressed that they will continue to work with their colleagues who supported the measure.

“My opposition is not just that. It’s a commitment to do more,” Knudsen said.