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COMMENTARY: Helping those who need it most

What I know about homelessness in Las Vegas I learned on the street. But I find one element missing from the discussion that, in my opinion, is the key to successfully addressing this problem. I don’t define success as fewer homeless on the street, that is a given. I define success as less recidivism. In other words, those who make it off the street don’t return.

I’m talking about the respect for the homeless that comes not just by recognizing their rights as fellow citizens in the community but also by holding them to a standard of responsibility. Real life has consequences for good choices and bad. Homelessness should not be a free-for-all where all behavior is tolerated because … well, they just can’t help it. Sure, some will find responsibility more difficult to handle than others and will need additional services to get back to society’s norms. But we’re never asked. We are assumed to be subhuman, to put it bluntly.

I propose a bold approach that will not happen overnight but will yield results in time. The city of Las Vegas should take the lead in forming an organization comprising all those in the community that serve the homeless. More should be expected from them, as well. Every homeless individual should be registered, not to keep track of them but to track our progress helping them. We do that already with the Clarity Card, so it’s a matter of determining if it can be used in this way or if something new must be created. Each homeless person should be registered and accounted for. They will receive an agreement with the city acknowledging their rights and responsibilities. The city agrees through this centralized approach to treat the homeless with respect, not as a law enforcement problem, and to offer an open door to those needing help.

In exchange, the homeless individual agrees that nothing is free and that the benefit of help attached to responsibilities is more worthwhile than just throwing a bunch of programs in the air to see who benefits from them. To be homeless in Las Vegas is to be a blind man facing the elephant of available services. You get the front end and feel well taken care of, or you may get the back end and feel … well, you get the idea. Don’t tell me there’s a centralized process at the city’s Homeless Courtyard or elsewhere if only the homeless would avail themselves to it. Some will, some won’t and some can’t. A signed agreement and assessment makes both sides of the equation accountable.

The agreement could include the following, if we would only ask:

— Pick up your litter if the city returns trash bins to each block like it does for the normals.

— No public urination or defecation and, at night, only in city-provided facilities.

— No panhandling, period. Most panhandle for one reason: cigarettes. Anyone caught panhandling will be required to attend a city-sponsored smoking cessation group.

— No jaywalking. The city will take down the wall by the Courtyard and turn Foremaster Lane into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Does anyone think it is a good idea to give a homeless person a ticket he can’t afford to pay? It’s arbitrary and designed to harass the homeless.

— Respect private property. No sleeping, littering, loitering or sitting in any area that will obstruct a business owner’s property or foot traffic. If caught, the consequence will be cleaning the block around the business for one week during the early morning before opening time.

— No selling handouts from the community. The city will agree under certain rules to allow the community once again to use designated areas to hand out food, clothing and toiletries. Anyone caught trying to sell any of these items will be required to work off the debt for the organization sponsoring the giveaway.

— Respect public transportation. No selling bus passes or loitering at bus stops. Anyone violating that rule will clean bus stops for one week.

Unrealistic? Unworkable?

Maybe, but what we are doing now is not working by any standard of success.

All the city has to do is to allow a homeless commission to have an office and executive director who can reach out to organizations already helping the homeless to provide staffing for a team of vans, bicycles and Segways. If we can’t have face-to-face contact with each homeless citizen, we can’t help them. If we can’t help them, we are defeated and, worse, they will never recover.

Homelessness is an impossible way of life, but it is real and it is here. Thanks to the weather, we have more than our share, and we can’t change the weather. So let’s change our approach. We are a city of people willing to bet on the long shot. Let’s take the chance and change lives.

— Ron Moore writes from Las Vegas.

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