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Officials: Parking lot homeless shelter in Las Vegas was last resort

City and county officials were showered with criticism after photos of a makeshift parking lot shelter for the homeless at Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas made headlines around the world.

Julian Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary and former Democratic presidential candidate, was among those to react to photos of the homeless sleeping on rectangles painted on the pavement to maintain social distancing.

“There are 150,000 hotel rooms in Vegas going unused right now,” he wrote on Twitter. “How about public-private cooperation (resources) to temporarily house them there? And fund permanent housing!”

The Nevada Homeless Alliance also posted the photos, writing, “We need to do better.”

But Clark County and Las Vegas officials are defending the move, which was taken after a homeless man tested positive for COVID-19, prompting Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada to close its shelter for 500 men. They said they had been trying for three weeks to strike a deal with local landlords and area hotels and only turned to the Cashman parking lot out of desperation.

“Our housing-first strategy has always been our top priority. We cannot force private companies to work with the government,” said Tim Burch, Clark County administrator of human services. “That has been our plan since day one, and we have been unable to identify and secure a vendor willing to take this population. … The minute someone is willing to work with us, we will work on that lease.”

The Cashman shelter is only expected to remain open through Friday, with the Catholic Charities shelter expected to reopen Wednesday.

Other cities, notably Seattle and New Orleans, have placed some of their homeless populations in local hotels. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom has allocated $50 million to purchase and lease hotel rooms as part of his plan to address the crisis.

But in Las Vegas, where the massive hotels that dominate the skyline sit empty, inquiries about short-term shelter have not resulted in any such arrangements.

“This has been a quick response to the need,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of community services. “Everyone assumes that the city or the county can snap their fingers. Every community in America — every community in the world — is dealing with COVID-19. So it was really difficult to get really basic things, even though we’ve really been trying.”

But Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said short-term solutions like the parking lot shelter will only push the problem of providing care for homeless people down the road.

“The city hasn’t thought outside of this box they’ve decided homeless people deserve to be in,” he said. “Housing is health care. It’s shameful that these hotels are begging for bailouts. If they’re asking for taxpayer dollars, then they should be using their facilities for the public good. People are going to lose their lives, both housed and unhoused, and it’s entirely preventable.”

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

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