Homeless, activists collide with residents over Las Vegas park

The city of Las Vegas still seems to be at odds with people who are homeless and activists at Huntridge Circle Park.

A popular hangout for the homeless people in the area, Huntridge Circle Park has a storied history the city’s dealings with indigent people and the activists who feed them.

The park, on Maryland Parkway near Charleston Boulevard, was closed for years after a fatal stabbing and was the backdrop of a lawsuit over a City Council ordinance that banned feeding the underprivileged at public parks.

That ban was struck down in court, and the park has long since reopened. But activists with the group Food Not Bombs Las Vegas say they’re still being targeted by the city.

About three dozen people gathered at the park Sunday morning as volunteers distributed cupcakes, chips and vegetarian soup. The group provides meals at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and 11:30 a.m. Mondays.

Neighborhood resident David Lopez, an appointed parks commissioner, heard complaints Sunday about locked bathrooms and harassment by the Las Vegas Marshals who patrol the park. He said he thinks that the park’s homeless visitors should be getting help from “well-established” shelters and rescue missions.

“They provide long-term help with long-term solutions,” he said. He thinks the food draws more transients to the park.

“We don’t encourage that,” he said.

Food Not Bombs volunteer Kelly Patterson, 46, said the bathrooms are always locked now, except during special events like the movie nights hosted by the city.

“A lot of neighbors are worried about what’s happening inside the bathrooms,” Lopez said.

“Do they not realize what’s happening inside is now happening outside?” Patterson responded. “A lot of that concern is paranoia.”

The activists said they’ve tried to get the bathrooms reopened, but city officials send them to talk to the marshals, who send them to talk to the city.

“I don’t know who has the keys. The bathroom has been a problem for years,” Lopez said. “The marshals prefer it being locked.”

Lopez also said the city is looking into an engineering solution to make it easier to monitor restroom activity.

Patterson said it’s a tactic — homeless people who need a restroom either have to leave the park or risk a confrontation with marshals, he said.

Park patrols use what Patterson called selective enforcement in ticketing and arresting indigent people for minor infractions, like riding a bike on the sidewalk and jaywalking in a residential area. Before a public event is held at the park, the marshals routinely come in and roust all the homeless people, he said.

“It’s intimidation,” Patterson said. “It’s kind of a cruel thing.”

Thomas Gaule, 59, said he doesn’t understand what the problem is. Homeless people in the park, like him, police themselves for the most part. And he takes it upon himself to clean the park all the time.

He said neighborhood residents demonize them.

“They actually complain about us. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I don’t want no problems,” Gaule said. “It’s some kind of message to us.”

In 2006, the City Council passed an ordinance that banned feeding the homeless at public parks. The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case, and the ordinance was squashed in 2007. In 2010, the city settled to ease up on other restrictions about the number of people who can gather at a park without a license and whether homeless people could be kicked off the property when a crime hasn’t been committed.

Lopez said the city’s concern is public safety and pointed to a fatal stabbing during a fight between two homeless men in 2006 that gave the city a reason to close the park. The park reopened in 2011.

“If they closed every place in town there was a stabbing, they’d close every place in town,” Patterson shot back. “That was really just a convenient excuse to get rid of Food Not Bombs.”

Patterson said the city would get a lot further with the area’s transients by making them feel like a part of the community.

“This has been our biggest problem park,” Lopez said. “We have to find a happy medium.”

— Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Find him on Twitter: @WesJuhl.

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