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Critics of Las Vegas camping ban say it will only shift problem

When Las Vegas policymakers approved a controversial ban this week on camping and sleeping in public areas downtown, they expanded the prohibition northwest to include much of the city’s Historic Westside.

The historic enclave, represented by Ward 5 Councilman Cedric Crear, has seen its fair share of problems with homelessness, he told the audience toward the end of a marathon City Council meeting Wednesday.

“It’s not just the downtown corridor,” Crear said. “It’s all over.”

The ban, which proponents argued is necessary to curb an explosion of encampments and drive homeless individuals into shelters where they can access services, now officially encompasses all 12 downtown master plan districts and every residential neighborhood in the city.

City Attorney Brad Jerbic said that, even under the ban — which will be enforced only when shelter beds are available — homeless individuals who reject assistance can still sleep on the street. “You just can’t pick your street.”

“We’re not closing this entire town off by any means,” he said.

The ordinance does not restrict camping on public rights of way around businesses and other nonresidential areas outside of downtown Las Vegas.

‘Unintended consequence’

But the city-drawn downtown enforcement border, meant to highlight where the camping problem is the worst, has raised questions from some who fear the measure will only drive the campers into the outer reaches of the city. Among them are Olivia Diaz and Brian Knudsen, the two City Council members who voted against the ordinance.

“One of the concerns that I really have is that, as it’s been stated, this is not going to solve the problem. It’s going to move it around,” state Assemblyman Howard Watts, D-Las Vegas, told the council.

It was a sentiment echoed by Diaz, whose Ward 3 covers much of the downtown area.

“From my constituents’ perspective, they are concerned that we’re going to focus overly on the areas in the map and that we are going to cause the unintended consequence of pushing the homeless out further into residential areas,” Diaz said Wednesday before the ban passed on a 5-2 vote.

Knudsen said he was worried because the nonresidential enforcement boundary only covered the Medical District and nowhere else within his Ward 1.

“This disproportionately shifts the financial and social costs of homelessness on Ward 1 residents and businesses where enforcement is not prioritized,” he wrote on Twitter following the vote.

On Friday, Knudsen said the ban could hold implications for each jurisdiction adjacent to the downtown enforcement zone, whether that be the city’s wards 1, 3 and 5, North Las Vegas or unincorporated Clark County.

Farther from services

How homeless individuals in the roughly 150 to 200 downtown encampments react to enforcement when it begins Feb. 1 will be a personal decision, Knudsen said. But he worries about pushing them farther from services available on the so-called Corridor of Hope.

“They’re going to choose how to best survive,” he said.

The council members who voted for the ban and other supporters hope many will seek available assistance. They viewed the ban, which makes violations a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, as a necessary first step to address the issue. The ban is similar to laws enacted by more than 170 cities across the U.S., city officials noted.

Crear did not express concern Wednesday about encampments moving elsewhere within his district. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

But city officials stressed that the council could not afford to wait to act on the ban, saying that safety and public health could be compromised if the encampments were allowed to stay downtown.

“If we don’t make that action, then the problem will take control of us,” said Jerry Walker, the city’s director of operations and maintenance. “We will be reactive only, and our problems will continue to expand to issues where they really shouldn’t be.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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