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Officials: Las Vegas camping ban connecting homeless to services

Updated February 27, 2020 - 7:31 pm

Las Vegas police and members of the city’s homeless outreach teams said Thursday that officers have issued no citations or arrested anyone since the city started enforcing its controversial camping ban on Feb. 1.

But a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department later acknowledged when questioned by the Review-Journal that officers have continued to write citations to homeless people under other anti-nuisance ordinances on the books before the anti-camping ordinance was approved in November.

The department said it could provide no information on the number of citations issued to homeless individuals during February for violating the other ordinances.

At a news briefing Thursday morning, Lt. Tim Hatchett, who heads Metro’s Homeless Outreach Team, said the lack of arrests and citations under the new ordinance reflected the city’s priority of getting more homeless off the streets and into various offered by the city and its nonprofit partners.

“You might ask, Why is that? Are we not enforcing the law?” Hatchett said. “Our focus is connecting them with resources. An arrest is an absolute last option.

“What’s actually occurring is a coordinated effort between all these different entities to help utilize the tools of the laws, the community, the organizations and actually help them to connect with those resources.”

The new ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for people to camp or sleep downtown or in residential areas of Las Vegas when space is available at any of the city’s homeless shelters. Violation of the ordinance is punishable of a fine up to $1,000 or six months in jail.

Other ordinances enforced

Though officers said outreach is a main priority, a Metro spokesman confirmed that officers are still enforcing other ordinances and misdemeanors that homeless offenders frequently run afoul of, such as jaywalking or trespassing.

In a video posted two weeks ago by a member of the group Food Not Bombs Las Vegas, a homeless woman in a large coat was seen interacting with officers before walking away holding a pink citation.

Joey Lankowski, who was one of the 12 arrested during a recent protest against the ordinance, said the video was filmed under the overpass on F Street and Bonanza Road.

“They claim that it was a new ordinance put through, and I was trespassing on my property,” the woman who identified herself as Queen said.

She then grew agitated by Lankowski’s questions, asking him to leave her alone and refusing to show him the citation.

“I saw the citation in their hand, but I wasn’t able to read and see if it was specifically for the ordinance,” Lankowski told the Review-Journal on Thursday. “But several people have said they were cited for the ordinance, unless they’re writing something else on the citation and telling them it’s for the ordinance.”

Officer Aden Ocampo-Gomez, spokesman for Metro, said the woman got a citation for a misdemeanor, but it wasn’t for violating the no-camping ordinance.

‘Our focus is to help people first’

“I don’t know what the citation was for — jaywalking, blocking the sidewalk. There’s a slew of other ordinances within the books,” he said. “Yes, we passed a new law, but it doesn’t change much in the way that we’re doing things because why would we start citing now when we have other stuff that we can use?

“Our focus is to help people first, and we’re being successful.”

At a Thursday news briefing, members of the city’s Multi-Agency Outreach Resource Engagement Team, made up of Metro officers and the nonprofits U.S. Vets, Salvation Army, HELP of Southern Nevada, WestCare, and lieutenants from Bolden Area Command and Downtown Area Command, detailed their efforts at homeless outreach.

Hatchett said that in the year and half since his team has been deployed, more than 500 people have been helped out of homelessness. Overall, almost 13,000 people have made contact with the team.

“That’s taking those individuals hand by hand with these providers, with community efforts, with the city, with the help of all our substations, and introducing those individuals to nonprofits,” he said.

When the MORE team is not available, members of the Community Oriented Policing team, who are primarily tasked with enforcing the no-camping ordinance after hours, will intervene.

“Our role really has not changed. We’ve continued to do what we’ve been doing, which is outreach, and trying to connect folks with resources,” said Lt. Raul Rodriguez, who oversees the team for Bolden Area Command.

“For us, it’s business as usual, connecting folks with resources, and then as a last resort, if someone is resistant or posing a health safety or public safety to our community, then maybe we would enforce whatever applicable laws may be.”

Yearlong wait for housing ends

By the time of the 8 a.m. news briefing, the MORE team already had made its rounds at the intersection of B Street and Owens Avenue. Most of the homeless had cleared out from encampments along the nearby wash. Shopping carts still littered the area, and a discarded mattress lay askew against a fence.

A couple, who declined to give their names, were told that, after more than a year of waiting, they had qualified for housing, a fact MORE team members discovered when they entered their names into the Homeless Management Information System, which tracks homeless individuals’ use of services. The couple gave officers their belongings, which were put in a city van.

Next, they were to be seen by a mental health professional to address the “why” of their situation and then enter case management to ensure they can be stable when they get into housing, said Sunnie Ennis, HELP of Southern Nevada outreach specialist.

When she pulled up in the van earlier that morning, most people approached her ready for their assessment.

“Your life can change in a blink of an eye, so it’s all about treating someone like family,” she said. “People at the end of the day, they’re humans and they should be loved and cared for.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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