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Gail Sacco, fierce advocate for Las Vegas homeless, dies at 63

If there is one word most often used to describe Gail Sacco, it is “fighter.”

It was a term she embodied until her death Tuesday after a two-year-plus battle with lung cancer. She was 63.

She spent the last weeks of her life doing what she was best known for in Las Vegas: serving the homeless.

No longer able to venture out, she had her husband, Joseph, 78, take meals to volunteers to be distributed to the homeless — something she had a long history of doing herself.

“It gave my mom one more reason to live,” her son, Joe Sacco Jr., told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Gail Sacco made national headlines in 2006 when she and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to strike down a City of Las Vegas ordinance that made it illegal to feed the homeless in city parks.

At the time, the county had about 12,000 homeless people, and city officials said the ordinance was needed to alleviate complaints from neighbors about crime, public drunkenness and litter.

A U.S. District Court judge sided with the plaintiffs, but the city appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court said the two sides were not far apart on the central issues of the case and ordered the parties to mediation.

Ultimately, a nonmonetary settlement was reached, with the city passing new rules that allowed feeding of the homeless in the parks with some limits. One rule also prohibited city marshals from forcing people to leave a park “under the authority of any statute or ordinance relating to trespassing.”

‘The right thing to do’

The outcome did not establish a legal precedent, but the case was used as a reference in similar cases that led to similar outcomes in other jurisdictions nationwide, said Allen Lichtenstein, former general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada.

Before she went to court, Gail Sacco had faced up to a year and a half in jail and $3,000 in fines for feeding indigent people in a city park without a permit that was unattainable.

“It doesn’t make a difference to me whether it’s legal or not,” she told the Review-Journal in 2007 while piling a paper plate high with salad for a homeless man at Frank Wright Plaza. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Standing a little under 5 feet, 1 inch tall, the Italian American with long silver hair was not small when it came to her voice, said Gary Peck, director of the ACLU of Nevada at the time.

“She was a fierce warrior with a deeply good heart,” he said. “She fearlessly fought for the disenfranchised to ensure they would be treated with dignity and that they weren’t routinely beaten down by the communities they were trying to survive in.”

Even former Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, who supported the city’s ordinance at the time, said he was impressed by Sacco’s strict adherence to her principles.

“She had a pretty good sense of humor, and I told her once, ‘How about we feed them at your house?’ We hit it off better because of that,” he said Friday.

“Sacco started something that was a good thing,” he added. “It forced the city to confront the problem.”

In 2009, Sacco and her husband, both former restaurant owners, bought a second home, near Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway, which they rented out for no profit to five homeless people.

One of them was 48-year-old Bret Brennan, better known as “Cowboy” for his love of rodeo and Westerns, the Review-Journal reported at the time.

Sacco moved Brennan, who was rail-thin after living on the streets for 15 years and suffering from throat cancer, into the house. She helped him get disability benefits and Medicaid, a state ID and took him to chemotherapy and other appointments.

“She never asked for anyone to meet a certain mark,” Joe Sacco Jr. said of his mother. “Simply being a human being was enough.”

‘Never backed down’

Sacco usually got up with the birds to begin cooking vegetarian soup and potatoes that she distributed daily to the homeless at the downtown Huntridge Circle Park. She later scaled back the feeding to every Sunday and began focusing more energy on affordable housing issues.

Becky Isais, who was inspired by Sacco to continue feeding the homeless, remembered she would also register them to vote.

“Vegas is really lucky to have had her,” Isais said. “I worry about the homeless who knew her. They’re going to be heartbroken and feel defenseless, because she stuck up for them like nobody would.”

Sacco also stuck up for her kids, when necessary.

Joe Jr. recalls that before the family moved to Las Vegas in 1988, she defended him from bullies at Catholic school in the Boston area and backed him up when school officials threatened to throw him out when he got his ears pierced at 8 and decided at 10 to dress up as Daphne Blake from “Scooby-Doo” for Halloween.

Both times, his mom stormed into the principal’s office and threatened to sue the school.

“She’s never backed down from a fight to represent the underdog,” he said.

When a nervous Joe Jr. came out as gay to his mother at 25, he thought his Catholic mother would reject him.

Instead, she chuckled, he said, and asked, “Was that supposed to surprise me?”

Joe Jr. often compares his mother, a devout Catholic, to the late New York activist and political radical Dorothy Day, whose goal was to highlight economic and social inequalities.

“She was never afraid to face off corrupt politicians and wealthy businessmen and those that would like to oppress our homeless,” he said. “She didn’t just talk. She walked.”

She went to jail once that her son remembers, after she interfered when an officer was arresting a homeless individual outside the Eureka Casino.

“I could help this person,” her son quoted her as telling the officers. “You don’t have to arrest them!”

In her memory, her son is working with a family attorney to create the Gail Sacco Foundation For Affordable Housing. He is raising money for the foundation and funeral expenses on GoFundMe.

“I want to honor my mom’s life and do something in her name that would make her proud,” he said. “My mom didn’t really like working with authorities. But I realized if we work together, collectively, we can do a whole lot more than as individuals.”

In addition to her husband and son, Sacco is survived by a daughter, Theresa, and a grandson, Joshua.

A memorial service has not been set.

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

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