Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2019

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Las Vegas ordinance to ban public sleeping, resting sparks controversy

Homeless Ordinance

Miranda Alam / Las Vegas Sun

People gather outside Las Vegas City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, to protest a proposed ordinance that would ban camping, sleeping, sitting and lying down in public spaces downtown and in residential neighborhoods.

An ordinance proposed by Mayor Carolyn Goodman to ban camping, sleeping, sitting and lying down in public spaces downtown and in residential neighborhoods is getting flak from advocates for the homeless, who say the approach is inhumane.

The ordinance would make it a misdemeanor to rest, sleep or “lodge” in public rights-of-ways adjacent to residential properties, in downtown districts in Las Vegas including Fremont Street, the Medical District and the Arts District, or within 500 feet of a food processing facility. Offenders could be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for up to six months.

The goal of the proposal is to “break the cycle of homelessness” by connecting the homeless to city resources such as the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center and homeless shelters, while also addressing public safety concerns posed by Southern Nevada’s large homeless population, Goodman said in a statement. The measure would only be enforced when there are beds available at local shelters and at the courtyard, according to the ordinance text.

An estimated 13,871 people in Southern Nevada do not have a home, according to this year’s homelessness count. That’s 25 people per 100,000 residents. Services for the homeless, including shelters, social services and police activities, will cost the city an estimated $369 million this year.

“The city believes the ordinance will be a benefit to the homeless population, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of the entire community,” Goodman said. “The city has always demonstrated compassion for the needs of the growing homeless population, understanding (that) the public safety of everyone is a top priority.”

Activists, members of the homeless community and residents gathered outside Las Vegas City Hall today to express opposition to the proposed ordinance, arguing that it fails to address the root causes of homelessness and ignores the lack of affordable housing in the Las Vegas Valley. The ordinance was introduced at today’s council meeting, but no action will be taken until a public hearing on Nov. 6.

Under the ordinance, Metro Police would be required to notify offending individuals that they are violating the law, inform them of resources at the courtyard and direct them to a location not subject to the resting and sleeping ban. The director of the Office of Community Services would also inform Metro and the department of public safety when homeless facilities reach capacity, at which point the rule would become unenforceable, the ordinance text states.

Chuck Slavin, who has been homeless in Las Vegas and now volunteers with the homeless advocacy group Care, said the proposal does not consider reasons why someone might not want to stay in a shelter or in the open-air, city-run courtyard.

“Bugs, theft, everything else. I don’t stay in a shelter. I won’t,” Slavin said.

Former U.S. Housing Secretary and democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro stopped by City Hall to urge the council to kill the ordinance, describing it as “a mistake.”

“We should never criminalize desperation,” Castro said.

Shaun Hill, who described himself as “in transition” from homelessness, said the ordinance unfairly singles out the homeless.

“We just need a chance to get whatever we need to get back on our feet, to be back into circulation,” Hill said.

Resident Maria Rodriguez, who is not homeless or affiliated with a particular organization, said the ordinance would waste taxpayer money. A better solution, she said, would be to build more housing.

“It’s a slap in the face for everybody,” Rodriguez said.

This isn’t the first time that Las Vegas has attempted to remove the homeless from certain parts of the city. Last year, the city considered a proposal to ban people from congregating or resting within 1,000 feet of a food processing facility, said Wesley Juhl, communications manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. The city also attempted to ban feeding people in public parks in 2006, a rule that was ultimately overturned after being challenged by the ACLU.

Juhl said that this new proposal would prevent people from engaging in “life-sustaining activities,” such as using a blanket in the wintertime or putting down a towel on hot concrete in the summer. He urged city officials to “engage with people on the streets” before passing the measure.

Downtown business owner Gerald Gillock said he wants the city to address sanitation and safety issues relating to homelessness, but through different means. He believes this ordinance lacks enforceability and doesn’t address the problem of homeless people relieving themselves on private property and near businesses like his own.

Rather than pass this ordinance, the city should provide public bathrooms and sanitation facilities in the downtown areas, Gillock said.

“The homeless, they’re in a dire situation, but they need a place to go to the bathroom. It’s that simple,” he said.

Goodman’s proposal comes one year after a landmark Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which found that a similar law in Boise, Idaho, violated the eighth amendment. Boise’s ordinance against sleeping and camping in public spaces constituted as cruel and unusual punishment, the court ruled, in cases where offenders had “no home or other shelter to go to.”

Boise is appealing the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Las Vegas’ proposed ordinance differs from what Boise had in place in that it would only be enforced when there is space available at the courtyard or at homeless shelters. But Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, questioned whether the city’s ordinance could still be challenged. That’s because the homeless courtyard, which provides sleeping mats in a covered, open-air setting, is not “a home or other shelter,” she said.

“Our position is, anything less than indoor shelter is not what they described in (the Boise case),” Bauman said.

Goodman at today’s council meeting motioned to have the ordinance discussed and debated at a public hearing Nov. 6, skipping a Recommending Committee meeting, which is typically the next step for new ordinances after they are introduced.

Ward 1 City Councilman Brian Knudsen and Ward 3 City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, whose wards include most of downtown, declined to take a hard stance on the ordinance. Diaz said that while the ordinance isn’t “perfect,” she is eager to listen to residents and business owners about the best way to address homelessness, balancing the needs of all.

“There doesn’t go really a day without me hearing about the homelessness epidemic in the downtown,” Diaz added.

Knudsen stressed that homelessness should be solved at the regional level and questioned whether the ordinance would be “a strategy that can go by itself.”

“I’m looking forward to the public comment and to making sure we reach out to our stakeholders and get as much information and knowledge before we move forward with an ordinance like this,” Knudsen said.