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Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban

Updated January 31, 2020 - 11:42 pm

Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances.

“Enforcement is the last thing we will be doing. Being homeless is not a crime,” said Larry Hadfield, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department.

“The officers are out there, they care and they really want to help. And I think it can be said that the homeless issue isn’t something you can arrest your way out of.”

The ordinance, approved Nov. 6, makes it a misdemeanor crime — punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine — to camp or sleep in public areas downtown and in residential areas if there are beds available at the five local established homeless shelters.

Beginning Saturday, city marshals will patrol parks and the Fremont Street Experience, while Metro officers will patrol residential areas or private properties. The officers usually will be the ones to direct people to the shelters or the city-run Courtyard Homeless Resource Center and provide transportation if necessary, officials say.

With most of the estimated 2,000 emergency shelter beds filled nightly, city officials acknowledge they aren’t sure what to expect.

“The ordinance will really come back and let you know what happens. I don’t know that we’ll see 5,000 people rushing into the courtyard,” said Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of community services, referring to the 24/7 open-air enclosure where people can sleep and get help accessing social services.

“We may see five people rushing into the courtyard. We may see no change at all.”

Though some of the logistics of how the ban will play out on the streets probably will be ironed out in practice, the city has been testing out a text notification system with service providers and law enforcement since mid-December.

How the system will work

At 6 p.m. each night, the automated system will send texts to shelters.

Staff at the shelters then will open a form in which they will enter the number of available beds.

The information then will automatically be sent to a group that includes staff from the city’s Office of Community Services and law enforcement.

The texts will be issued every two hours until 4 a.m. or until all the shelters are full for the night.

The public is able to view the number of available beds via the city’s website at www.lasvegasnevada.gov/homeless.

Thomas-Gibson emphasized that citations will be issued only to people who do not accept services and refuse to move off the streets on their own. Fines or jail time will be used only for those who are repeatedly cited, she said.

“There’s some concern that this was about us rounding homeless people up and throwing them in jail, and nothing could be further from the truth. Frankly, we don’t have the resources to do it and (have) no desire to do it,” Thomas-Gibson said.

“If you just pack up your personal belongings and move along, you’re free to go wherever you choose.”

For more than a year, Metro’s Homeless Outreach Team has worked to build trust with the homeless community by connecting them with necessary resources. They will continue to do so but also have trained with members of the Community Oriented Policing team, which will primarily be the ones enforcing the ordinance.

“It comes down to how do you get these people help, how do you get them out of this predicament?” Hadfield said. “Once you take them to jail, they get out, and they’re in the same predicament. It’s counterproductive.”

Open beds at courtyard

Before the start of enforcement, many homeless appeared to have gravitated away from downtown and congregated farther north.

On Thursday night, encampments near downtown appeared sparse. A small group of homeless curled up with blankets on benches outside the Regional Justice Center, the smell of cigarettes wafting in the air.

“There’s been a whole lot of shakeup in the Corridor of Hope in terms of where clients are with the new ordinance and all that kind of stuff, and people are afraid out on the streets,” said Albert Chavez, vice president of social services at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. “They’re a little bit more covert as to where they sleep. They don’t necessarily want to be seen.”

The testing of the city’s new bed notification system appeared to run smoothly for most nonprofits. On Thursday night, it showed most shelters were full, but there were two beds listed as open for women, one for a man and 11 for transgender people at the Salvation Army at 10:02 p.m.

The courtyard showed 149 available beds at 4:06 a.m. Friday. The facility was intended to house about 200 people a night when it opened in July 2018 but now has more than 400 sleeping mats available.

A construction project at the courtyard slated to start in July will increase capacity to about 500 beds and also add a 9,000-square-foot federal health care facility.

“We are actually going to be the last option for folks,” Thomas-Gibson said. “Because we’re going to be the last one to hit zero.”

‘It’s going to burst at the seams’

Around 7 p.m. Thursday, Jimmy Barfield, 59, an Army National Guard veteran, threw his cane on his 3-inch thick mat and prepared to spread out his bedding.

He had secured a spot under the heating lamps and out of the windy January air. Barfield said he has been at the courtyard for nearly a year since losing his job as a cook.

“It’s not right to make people come here. We’re not here because we want to be,” he said of the ordinance.

He said he used to live in a field off Las Vegas Boulevard North before being shooed off by the property owner.

“There I kicked back and had peaceful evenings. You don’t hear dogs barking or people arguing,” he said. “A lot of the tents have moved elsewhere where they won’t be cited.”

Another man, Anthony Bonini, expressed concern over what would happen to the courtyard and the homeless now that the ordinance is going to be enforced.

“They didn’t plan for the influx of the homeless,” he said, tugging on his hat next to the row of port-a-potties. “It’s going to burst at the seams.”

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

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