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Citizens protest during the Las Vegas City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019 to consider a controversial proposal that would ban people from sleeping in public areas in downtown Las Vegas. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

What does it mean to solve the homeless problem?

Politicians love to propose reactions to various problems we face as a society.  They don’t call them “reactions” – they would prefer it if we called them “solutions,” even if they really aren’t.  

There are many problems with proposing an actual solution to something.  First, it requires actually identifying an end goal – in other words, telling us exactly what it means to have succeeded.  Such quantification allows one’s critics (and next cycle’s candidates) to point out that you failed to meet your own expectations.  And then, of course, people may not always agree on the goal, and why limit the number of people to whom you can pander?

No – it’s far better to simply declare war on some societal problem or another without conditions of victory or even an exit strategy.  Throw money at it, create additional bureaucracies, commission interim study committees…Those make great bullet points under “achievements” in a re-election flyer, even if no actual problem has come close to being actually solved.  And let’s be honest – successful government is boring government, and boring government doesn’t motivate people to go to the polls.  

To be fair, many problems government is tasked with addressing have no permanent solution.  Crime will never be reduced to zero, and new potholes will always get rattled open by weather and wear.  But reductions – or reaction time (all potholes will be filled within 48 hours of being reported, for example) – can be quantified.

You can always tell an organization that doesn’t know what its mission is.  If it’s a private company, it will soon be out-of-business. If it’s a government entity, it will endure forever while the problems it’s tasked with solving get worse and worse and worse.

I thought about all of this as I read the coverage of Las Vegas’ new vagrancy ordinance, which prohibits people using public rights-of-way as bedrooms, bathrooms, or living rooms.  One quote from a formerly homeless citizen protesting the measure caught my eye, and bothered me a great deal.

“Homelessness is not a crisis because the homeless exist, homelessness is a crisis because the homeless suffer,” a man named Ron Moore told the Las Vegas City Council.

This is nothing short of insane to me.  What, I wondered, is Mr. Moore’s end-game?  Comfortable homelessness? Maid service in permanent tent cities?  Are homeless folks a cultural minority whose lifestyle choices should be respected and/or subsidized in the name of compassion?  If you listen to some homeless “advocates,” one gets the sense that this is all the further their thought process goes, and it’s baffling, and wrong.

The homeless suffer because they are homeless – above and beyond what their addictions or mental illnesses would otherwise bring them.  They lack sanitation, temperature control, the security of a locked door against their “neighbors,” the most basic physical comforts of an actual dwelling.  And more than that, the rest of society is harmed by their encampments, as parks and sidewalks and other public places that are built and paid for by everyone for everyone become unusable to the taxpaying public at large, and as garbage, human waste, and drug paraphernalia literally pile up around the tents.  The risk of infectious disease such camps pose is very real, and intolerable.

We as a society have understood this for hundreds of years.  Vagrancy laws are nothing new, and vibrant cities cannot simply allow anyone to set up a tent (or any other structure) in the middle of a public place.  

If you actually read it, it is clear that the Las Vegas ordinance does not “criminalize poverty.”  It criminalizes a specific behavior which is deleterious to both the person sleeping on a sidewalk and to the rest of the folks trying to walk in safety on that same sidewalk.  But it also mandates that police cannot make an arrest or issue a citation without offering real help for that person first, or at least asking them to simply leave. This is an extraordinary balance you see nowhere else in the criminal law – it would be as if cops had to give drunk drivers the option of calling a cab before arresting them.

Cities such as Seattle that have attempted to make homelessness more comfortable – pursuing policies of compassion without accountability – have only made their problems much, much worse while endangering the rest of their citizenry.  Subsidized or public housing can work if done right, but the history of public housing projects in major cities is a cautionary tale. 

As others have often pointed out, homelessness is not a monolithic problem amenable to a single solution.  A “mere” heroin addict needs different intervention from the woman with schizophrenia, and as a society, we can and should offer help for these conditions.  

But we can simultaneously keep our public places accessible and safe to the general public, and structure our laws to require intervention or face more punitive outcomes, especially for those who have been offered those solutions and have refused to take part in them.  To deny any responsibility on the part of the homeless for taking advantage of various existing tax-funded programs or shelter options is to deny their very humanity, and is as unhelpful as it is offensive.  

The Las Vegas City Council, unlike its counterparts in too many other western cities, has recognized that solving homelessness involves this balance.  It means getting people off the streets first and foremost. It means requiring government agents to try non-criminal interventions first, and only resort to arrest where direct help has been tried.  It means incentivizing good behavior, and enforcing consequences against the bad. The ordinance is not the solution alone, and additional services must be made available and funded, but it’s a critical part of real success in reducing homelessness.

The result will be a healthier city for everyone – including the hopefully-soon-to-be-former homeless men and women of Las Vegas.  Good for the City Council for understanding its duties and obligation to all of its citizens, and not kicking this public health crisis down the road in the name of a false benevolence.  And as our own homeless problem in Washoe County gets worse, I can only hope our own local officials incorporate serious accountability along with efforts to provide services to those in need.

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007.  He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016.  By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno.  Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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