Updated September 25, 2019 - 11:13 pm
The Las Vegas City Council will consider next month making it illegal to camp or sleep in public areas in downtown and residential areas if beds are available at the city’s homeless complex or through nonprofit social services.
The proposed ordinance, to be introduced Wednesday but not opened for public discussion until Oct. 14, is meant to target the influx of homeless people, which has spurred public health and sanitation concerns, particularly near businesses and places where food is processed, officials said.
Under the bill, it would be a misdemeanor to camp or sleep in the public right of way, such as a sidewalk, when there are beds or spaces free at the city’s Courtyard Homeless Resource Center or other nonprofit service providers within the so-called Corridor of Hope just north of downtown, according to the city.
A similar bill was killed by city officials a year ago that would have made it illegal for people to sit and camp within 1,000 feet of a food processing facility. The new proposal is slightly less stringent, requiring 500 feet of separation.
Law enforcement officials would be authorized to direct individuals found sleeping or camping in a right of way to the courtyard or other providers, or to cite and remove them if they fail to comply. If no beds or spaces are available at the courtyard or shelters, the ban would not be enforced.
“We’re failing to fix the issues of homelessness, and we don’t want to end up with skid row in our community,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman said of the proposal in an interview.
Calling homelessness a complex national issue, Goodman said sleeping on the streets is unsafe for everyone, including those doing it. The proposed ordinance, which she is sponsoring, was sparked by too many individuals rejecting the assistance made available at the courtyard and at neighboring nonprofits, she added.
Merideth Spriggs, whose nonprofit Caridad provides food and employment for formerly homeless clients from US Vets, argued that the proposal is reminiscent of a camping ban in Boise, Idaho, that was overturned last year by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, the court ruled enforcing a camping ban without making enough shelter beds available violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Boise appealed the ruling, which could end up before the Supreme Court.
“What are they thinking?” Spriggs said of the Las Vegas proposal. “I think this is a knee-jerk reaction.” The city is “getting a lot of pushback from community stakeholders because they had promised that the courtyard would be the end all, be all, and they’re asking the community for money to support it.”
Goodman has said the courtyard cannot be sustained by the city alone. She has established the Mayor’s Fund for Las Vegas LIFE to seek support for city projects, including the courtyard, from businesses, nonprofits and private citizens.
“With this heavier enforcement, all you’re going to do is spread this out farther, and they’re going to be farther from the resources,” Spriggs said. “It’s like they’re playing whack-a-mole, and they’re just scooting people around.”
Goodman said the city wants to be “most humanitarian in our approach,” and she dismissed questions over whether the proposal was tantamount to criminalizing homelessness as “negative.” She also said local law enforcement officials were being unfairly maligned for their dealings with the homeless when they are trying to help.
The crackdown would apply to all 12 downtown districts as well as anywhere in the city where there is a road adjacent to residential zoning, city spokesman Jace Radke said. It would not encompass rights of way outside downtown Las Vegas that are next to commercial zoning.
Emily Paulsen, executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, said in a statement that the emergency shelters and homeless assistance programs are currently at capacity throughout the year, meaning the ban might not have much of an effect.
There are about 1,800 emergency shelter beds in Clark County, and 91 percent of them were full the night of the county’s annual homeless census in January.
“The problem is not that people choose not to use shelter. The problem is that we don’t have enough shelter and supportive housing to meet the needs in our community,” Paulsen said. She urged officials to “abandon approaches like criminalizing the homeless.”
One striking number from this year’s homeless census estimated that 622 individuals were chronically homeless on any given night in Southern Nevada, an increase of 19 percent from last year. Overall, the county estimates that about 14,114 people will experience homelessness in Clark County at some point this year.
The city is investing $16 million in the courtyard at 314 Foremaster Lane, which is set to be completed next year. The courtyard has received more than 28,000 requests for services since August 2017, according to city officials. In July alone, city staff assisted more than 1,400 individuals there.
Beyond shelter, the public-private partnership offers medical and mental health services, legal assistance, employment opportunities and food, clothing and housing assistance.