Vegas homeless camping ban faces legal, logistical hurdles
LAS VEGAS (AP) — At a street corner in downtown in Las Vegas, a barefoot woman whispers to herself.
A man, using his stuffed suitcase as a pillow, sleeps on the sidewalk, wrapped like a mummy in a brown sheet.
Against a cement wall, Harry Reynolds and his fiancee, Alice Pate, spread three blankets and set up camp for the night.
“God wants us to be together,” Pate told the Las Vegas Review-Journal . “At the shelters, they want to separate us.”
Such personal calculations may get more complicated for the homeless if the Las Vegas City Council adopts a proposed ordinance to make it a misdemeanor to camp and sleep in public areas when beds are available at established homeless shelters. A public hearing is scheduled Nov. 6.
Officials say they’re trying to stem complaints and compel street-dwellers to seek help as part of a broader strategy to protect the homeless and the public, safeguard business interests and address a public health crisis.
“I look at this as an effort of desperation, really, to try to figure out how to manage a situation that is almost unmanageable,” said Councilman Brian Knudsen. “The city’s (already) taking really proactive steps, but it’s not enough, and it’s not fast enough.”
Outside his downtown office, attorney Gerald Gillock said he often finds hypodermic needles, trash and the stench of urine and feces. Once, he scooped poop in a shovel and walked it over to City Hall to get officials’ attention.
“They’re going to the bathroom everywhere,” Gillock told the Review-Journal. “I had that happen 10 times in two weeks.”
But Gillock doesn’t think a camping ban is the solution. He said shelters are already at capacity and the ordinance wouldn’t require the city to provide public sanitation facilities.
City Council members agree there is a need to address what is widely seen as a worsening regional problem.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman and two other council members say they support the camping ban.
“This ordinance is not to put folks in jail,” said Councilwoman Victoria Seaman, who noted that the city’s downtown Courtyard Homeless Resource Center offers much-needed assistance. “It’s to help them get them where they need to go and not have the encroachment upon businesses where you have folks sleeping in doorways.”
Knudsen, Councilman Stavros Anthony and Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, whose Ward 3 district includes the heart of downtown Las Vegas, said they haven’t decided whether they support the measure.
Meanwhile, the proposal has drawn protests, questions of legality and criticism that it will only criminalize the destitute and vulnerable.
City Attorney Brad Jerbic said he believes the law would hold up in court. He said he’ll present the council with information about complete or partial camping bans in 10 other jurisdictions.
Jerbic said he intentionally drafted the measure to include “if beds are available” language to avoid the fate of a similar camping ban in Boise, Idaho, that was struck down last year by a federal court.
That case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco deemed the Boise measure unconstitutionally cruel and unusual because it didn’t guarantee enough shelter beds were available.
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, who worked on the Boise case on behalf of six homeless individuals, said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and part of Maryland, and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Florida have issued similar rulings.
Tars argued the Las Vegas ordinance could saddle the homeless with arrest records and tickets they can’t pay, keep them from getting jobs and housing, and possibly lead to the loss of lifeline government benefits.
Rather than try to thread what he called a “constitutional loophole,” Tars said Las Vegas could follow other cities that use temporarily vacant spaces as shelters, rotate shelters among different churches, allow residents to put tiny homes in backyards or provide safe parking options for people living in vehicles.
“You can’t just exile people you don’t want to see in your downtowns,” he said.
For some, living downtown amid a cluster of shelters and food kitchens in what officials call the Corridor of Hope is a monotonous routine.
By 6 p.m. one Wednesday, hundreds of men had lined up for a bed at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, where all 500 beds were filled.
Others waited for dinner and a bed at the over-capacity Las Vegas Rescue Mission, where 191 stayed overnight. Some slept on cots and couches.
At the Salvation Army, the 104 walk-in beds for men and women were claimed by 7 p.m. the night before.
All told, there are about 2,000 beds for more than 5,500 homeless people on the streets on any given night in southern Nevada, according to this year’s annual homeless census taken in January.
Clark County estimates that more than 14,000 people are homeless at some point during the year.
Jerbic said a plan to address the bed shortage will be unveiled when the camping ban is discussed Nov. 6. He declined to provide details.
“We do have plans to always have a certain number of beds available just for this reason,” he said. “They won’t be available on a daily basis except when needed for this ordinance.”
The city has said no one will be turned away at an open-air, 24/7 courtyard where officials say more than 300 people stay on any given night. There are 220 sleeping mats.
Even if there were beds available, Deacon Tom Roberts, chief executive of Catholic Charities, worried that if people on the streets are forced to seek shelter, they will avoid resources and Las Vegas police outreach officers. He said more resources should be put toward mental health and addiction treatment.
“You can arrest people all day long, and, frankly, you can put them in an apartment. But if you can’t treat the reason why they’re there, the apartment will become an insane asylum,” Roberts said. “Even if we had an open bed, I can’t put someone upstairs in our dorm environment who doesn’t want to be there. That creates a safety risk.”
Dealing with homeless mentally ill or drug-addicted people is not covered by the proposed ordinance. That is another dividing line in the debate.
Diaz, one of the undecided council members, has suggested using court diversion programs for homeless individuals in need of addiction and mental health treatment or housing.
In an interview with KNPR public radio this month, Goodman resurrected an idea her husband, Oscar Goodman, championed when he was mayor.
It would turn a shuttered former state prison 30 miles south of Las Vegas into a facility for people with severe mental illness.
On the street level, police Lt. Tim Hatchett said he doesn’t foresee the ordinance would be an undue burden on his homeless outreach team or patrol officers who regularly interact with the homeless.
“We always have the capability of determining what we’re going to enforce, right?” said Hatchett, who has a background in social work. He noted that officers who stop motorists for speeding may issue a warning instead of a ticket.
“But if you’ve done everything you possibly can for this person, you have to have something to say: ‘OK, it’s time for you to get some help, right?’” he said. “I think that’s what they’re looking for.”
Anthony, the councilman and former Las Vegas police captain, said law enforcers including city marshals must commit to the new rule, and the city must have a system in place to alert officers about bed availability.
Hatchett said officers already communicate with shelters on a daily basis.
Less clear is whether the homeless would adapt to the law.
Anthony Lowe, who has stayed at the Salvation Army shelter since March, said he has to choose between waiting in line for a bed or making an uphill trip to a food shelter more than a mile away. Arthritis in his feet makes it difficult for the 64-year-old to walk, he said.
Kathleen Sutton, a 58-year-old disabled former investigator for a pharmaceutical company, uses a motorized scooter and has lived on the streets since June. She said she believed a camping ban could add more instability to her already precarious existence.
Sutton said she has been sexually assaulted, watched a man get run over in a nearby desert lot and tried several ways to get help. She said she’s number 841 on a waiting list for affordable housing.
Her support network includes Pate, Reynolds and an 86-year-old homeless Korean War veteran they all call “dad.”
“I’m a tough girl, but I’m scared being by myself,” Sutton said. “Where do the homeless go? The marshals come in. They ask you to get off the street. Where do you go? Down the street, until we get woken up again? So where do we go?”
Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com