Getting indignant about indigents helps save parks for ‘decent’ folks

Serve a sandwich, go to jail.

On the growing list of constitutional transgressions dreamed up by local government in recent years, none pegged the insanity meter like the city of Las Vegas ordinance that bans citizens handing out food in a park to a person who appears indigent.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jones on Wednesday handed the city a permanent injunction preventing it from enforcing its don’t-feed-the-winos rule. Jones did, however, allow the city to continue to enforce its trespassing laws that set aside “children only” park areas and require permits for groups of 25 or more.

It’s the latter ordinance that in the future will likely enable the city to break up the great-unwashed breakfast clubs hosted by homeless advocates in local parks.

In other words, the fight isn’t finished. It’s a fact American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada Counsel Allen Lichtenstein acknowledged Friday without an air of resignation or an ounce of irony. The ACLU brought the case against the city on behalf of local homeless advocates and that soiled paper napkin sometimes called the Constitution.

“We won one important thing,” Lichtenstein said, adding that the local office was already preparing its appeal.

Jones’ decision to grant a permanent injunction raises a compelling question: Just who looks like an indigent person these days?

Indigent. You know, penniless. Homeless. Or at least near-penniless and near-homeless.

From the look of all the home foreclosures in Southern Nevada, there are two-income families that could now qualify as “indigent.” Some of those so-called indigent folks probably voted for the current City Council.

As I’ve never been a slave to fashion and have rarely stood on a street corner more than five minutes without a stranger handing me a buck for a bowl of soup, I can see the potential for conflict and confusion. Just what exactly does an indigent person look like?

Is it those sad eyes?

Better steer clear of local parks, Jerry Tarkanian. You could be considered indigent.

Is it a scruffy growth of whiskers and booze on the breath?

Come on, that’s Mayor Oscar Goodman after 5 p.m.

How about ragged clothing and a thousand-mile stare?

That describes half the rock bands in the world.

Fortunately, Judge Jones has given local homeless and the rest of us a brief respite from the city’s clumsy crusade to make its urban core appear sufficiently sanitized for redevelopment. Meanwhile, City Director of the Department of Constitutionally Questionable Actions Brad Jerbic said in a recent interview that the ordinance didn’t have to do with being homeless, but with the conduct of those who feed them in the parks.

That’s just nonsense. Of course this is about the homeless in the parks. It’s about the homeless and those who, for whatever reason, are motivated to help them. The city wants to regiment the recalcitrant street characters and give them the bum’s rush by making it uncomfortable for them to hang out in public places. The city’s unofficial motto: Unkempt and uncooperative equals unwelcome.

The town that attracted the transients with its siren song about easy money and endless parties has no intention of allowing them to overstay their welcome. Elected officials believe, with some justification, that average citizens don’t care whether winos, sidewalk smut peddlers, and starry-eyed street preachers are given their space among the “decent” citizens (especially the tourists). The city has long used the public’s homeless phobia to its advantage, whether it’s passing ordinances to clear the way for development, or using the image of the dangerous bum to justify bulldozing parks and transferring the real estate to City Hall cronies.

If it weren’t for those stubborn constitutionalists at the ACLU, elected officials would have outlawed homelessness and gifted the sidewalks to Strip casino titans long ago.

But even Lichtenstein’s jaw dropped when the city essentially passed an ordinance policing park picnics.

“That particular ordinance I was quite surprised at, based on the total absurdity,” Lichtenstein said. “It was not about giving food to people who are homeless.”

It was about giving food to someone who appeared indigent. Much of the working poor would fall into that category.

“There are a lot of people eligible for public assistance who get public assistance who are not homeless,” he said.

Thanks to the ACLU, the city’s picnic police are temporarily out of work.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call 383-0295.

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