Alongside ample “Pay for Parking” signs in the downtown area of Las Vegas, there are some new-looking signs.
Absolutely no pedestrian-vehicle interference, unlawful possession of shopping carts or sleeping in private doorways.
The signs cite municipal codes that outlaw obstructing pedestrian and vehicle traffic, loitering and prowling, and a statute that outlaws stealing or defacing shopping carts. But laws directed at the city's homeless population are not strong enough for Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who will introduce a new ordinance at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
If passed, the ordinance would make it a misdemeanor to camp or sleep in any public right-of-way downtown and in residential areas in cases where beds are available at at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center or another service provider along the “Corridor of Hope” — the stretch of Foremaster Lane between Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard where homeless services are concentrated.
The 2019 homelessness census in January counted 5,300 people sleeping on the street, which could be a challenge for enforcing the ordinance.
If the ordinance is approved, law enforcement will be able to notify individuals that they are in a right-of-way and direct them to services at the Courtyard and other providers, according to a City of Las Vegas press release. If all beds and spaces are full in the Corridor of Hope, then the ordinance would not be enforced during those periods of the day.
“Proliferation of homeless individuals in public rights-of-way has resulted in hygiene and sanitation issues, often around businesses and food processing locations,” said the city’s official statement for considering the ordinance.
While Las Vegas has a homeless population of more than 5,000 people, it is unclear how many are in the downtown area at any given time, and would be affected by the proposed ordinance. According to HUD’s 2018 Homelessness Assessment, about 56 percent of homeless Nevadans do not have access to a shelter.
“[There are] probably about 1,000 beds if you don’t include the matts in the Courtyard,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of Community Services.
The Courtyard Homeless Resources Center opened in July 2018 as a 24-hour homeless safety zone and resource center with no requirements or barriers to entry such as breathalyzer, drug tests or psychiatric evaluations. According to Thomas-Gibson, it is a city-funded program that is part of a larger continuum of interventions by Clark County, police, and other local government agencies.
While part of the problem is not having enough beds for everyone in need, homeless individuals often prefer to sleep outside because of unsanitary, unsafe or uncomfortable conditions in the shelters, which have been historically overcrowded.
A task force of two officers, known as the Multi-agency Outreach Resource Engagement (M.O.R.E.) team, try to help by working with homeless services agencies. There are also three two-person Homeless Outreach Teams (H.O.T.) of police that focus on crimes related to homelessness.
If the “no camping” ordinance passes, courts, corrections and police would bear the brunt of the bottleneck, processing the crimes with new misdemeanor status. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police’s public information office said on Tuesday that they are unaware of any funding or support for specialized training such as de-escalation training, which is important when working with populations who have high rates of mental illness and substance addiction.
Aside from enforcement of the proposed ordinance, Thomas-Gibson anticipates further challenges in establishing affordable housing to transfer homeless individuals to. She says the city already has a master lease program and subsidizes new construction of affordable housing.
During the last legislative session, SB448 set aside $10 million in annual revenue for affordable housing credits for developers. SB103, which also passed, had a similar approach of subsidizing affordable-housing development fees.
Although some legislation has been set in motion to address Las Vegas’s lack of affordable housing, money is still an issue for service providers in the Corridor of Hope. AB73, which failed in the last legislative session, would have provided steady revenue for municipalities to further develop homeless services and affordable housing.
“Without those dedicated revenue streams, it will be a challenge to build or acquire more affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness,” Thomas-Gibson said on Tuesday.
According to an ACLU press release sent on Tuesday, more than 300 individuals and organizations have joined the coalition opposing the ordinance in the last few days. The ACLU will be spearheading a silent demonstration at the Oct. 2 City Council meeting, where anyone who wishes to attend can wear green to express opposition to the proposed ordinance.
"Ticketing and jailing people for not having a home is shameful and ineffective policy. Criminalizing people who are homeless creates additional barriers for them to get off the streets and increases public costs. We urge the Mayor to withdraw Bill 2019-36 from consideration and focus the city’s efforts on real solutions, such as building affordable housing,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, which is joining the ACLU in its opposition.
There will be an opportunity for public comment at a City Council meeting on October 14.
According to the City of Las Vegas, $16 million has been committed to help launch the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which would be one of the places law enforcement would direct homeless people to, if the ordinance passes.
Mark Hernandez contributed to this story.