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Clark County Government Center as seen on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Shortly after misdemeanor penalties for violating the Las Vegas City Council’s encampment ordinance went into effect on Feb. 1, Clark County commissioners are considering taking vagrancy laws “off the books.”

Existing county code lays out a variety of prohibited “acts of vagrancy,” including if a person “goes from house to house begging food, money or other articles,” “prowls upon the private property of another” or “sleeps in any vacant lot or public ground.”

“We’re making sure our laws don’t conflict with federal laws in the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals],” Commissioner Tick Segerblom said on Tuesday. “So the law, going forward, will be, you won’t arrest anybody for just being homeless.”

Segerblom first brought up the issue at the commission meeting on Jan. 7, just as the City Council was being publicly criticized for considering a second ordinance that bans sitting or camping in public areas designated for sidewalk cleaning.

A supplementary agenda item from the meeting detailed that the district attorney’s office had determined that the county’s vagrancy laws are “already covered” by state statute, and recommended that “the entire chapter be deleted.” Commissioners are discussing an ordinance that would delete the chapter.

Nevada laws already address activities that are associated with homelessness and, for now, enumerated in the “archaic” vagrancy laws — indecent exposure, prostitution, larceny, squatting and vagrancy. In a different chapter of the Clark County Code, “obstructive use of public sidewalks” is already outlawed.

The commissioners set a public hearing for Feb. 18 to discuss and receive public comments on the proposed ordinance.

Progressive advocates have said that decisions from the appellate court are evidence that new City of Las Vegas ordinances outlawing sitting and camping in public spaces will not stand up to a lawsuit. The most recent decision, which the Supreme Court has declined to review, details circumstances in which homeless individuals may not be able to find adequate shelter, even if shelters are not “at capacity.”

Although local government and some cities outside of Nevada have withdrawn such laws in light of the appellate and Supreme Court decisions, Las Vegas officials have maintained that its ordinances will stand up to potential lawsuits. 

At a December council meeting that postponed a vote on the sidewalk cleaning ordinance, City Manager Scott Adams said both the encampment and the sidewalk cleaning ordinances were written with the 9th Circuit’s decision in mind.

“I want to remind our City Council and the public that our encampment ordinance that you passed contemplated the Boise decision. In fact [it] accommodates the concerns that were expressed by the 9th Circuit Court in that decision,” Adams said on Dec. 18.

Segerblom said that the discussion about taking the vagrancy laws out of the county code “will probably be very simple.”

“Rather than have it there, let’s just take it off the books and go forward with what we normally do,” Segerblom said.  

According to estimates from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, the Clark County Detention Center had approximately 4,600 homeless inmates in 2019, not including inmates identified as homeless who are released within a few hours of being processed in. 

In the quest to better connect Clark County’s homeless with services to get them out of the cycle, commissioners have set aside land for and invested in affordable housing. More recently, they have attempted to expand the reach of homeless services throughout the valley. 

On Tuesday, the board also selected four providers to contract with to provide emergency shelter  — Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and Las Vegas Rescue Mission downtown, as well as HopeLink of Southern Nevada in Henderson and Well Care Foundation, which runs a behavioral and medical clinic on Boulder Highway.

Last year, the Department of Social Services requested proposals for new emergency shelter providers, with the intent to expand the availability of the number and types of shelters in Clark County. 

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