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Las Vegas City Council passes ordinance

that will criminalize homelessness

· News

Reporting: Brandon Summers

Photos and Video: Nissa Tzun

Las Vegas, NV - On Wednesday, November 6, 2019, the City of Las Vegas city council adopted bill no. 2019-36, a controversial ordinance aimed at addressing homelessness in several areas of downtown. The bill, sponsored by Mayor Goodman, would make it a misdemeanor for any individual to, “sit, lie down, camp or lodge in a public right-of-way”; but enforcement would only go into effect if the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, Las Vegas Rescue Mission or any publicly-funded shelter is at capacity. The city hopes that this measure will encourage homeless individuals to connect with the services they need to get off the streets. The conversation around what to do about homelessness in Las Vegas has gone on for years, and the City of Las Vegas was eager to act as the homeless population is notably visible in the downtown corridor.

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A rally and press conference was held outside the Las Vegas City Hall entrance an hour before the City Council Meeting, protesting the proposed ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor crime to camp, and sleep by certain areas in Downtown Las Vegas. November 6, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Advocates for the homeless rallied outside of Las Vegas City Hall in opposition to the ordinance as they believe that it explicitly criminalizes being homeless. The crowd of around 30-50 activists displayed signs with slogans like “Poverty Is Not A Crime,” and echoed the chant “Housing Not Handcuffs.” Many groups participated in the rally including (but not limited to) Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), ACLU of Nevada, Nevada Homeless Alliance, Make it Work Nevada, Battle Born Progress, as well as individuals who are currently without homes. Minister Stretch Sanders, a community activist, passionately led the rally with his booming voice.

This video produced for ChangeWire summarizes the meeting and vote for Ordinance 2019-36, displaying the overwhelming opposition by Las Vegas residents.

The cadre of concerned citizens proceeded into Las Vegas City Council chambers for what would become an unusually protracted meeting— one which lasted nine hours and dragged into the early evening. The chants continued inside as Mayor Goodman made numerous attempted to restore order. “You can’t hear me if you keep screaming… I can recess. I have a choice. I can ask you all to leave,” an agitated Goodman directed at protesters. Citizens, both for and against bill no. 2019-36, were given one minute to speak during the opening public comment. John Butner, who is part of the working homeless, said that he doesn’t earn enough income to secure housing. He described the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center as being a hostile environment. “Stay with it, keep trying,” replied Mayor Goodman. Her response was met with loud boos as opponents to the homeless bill perceived the reply condescending and insincere. The periodic disruptions by opponents of bill 2019-36 lasted the entire meeting and resulted in multiple ejections.

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City Councilwoman Michele Fiore, Mayor Carolyn Goodman, and City Councilman Stavros Anthony at the meeting for Ordinance 2019-36. November 6, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Public defender John Piro told the City Council “[he’ll] be representing the people that you arrest with this ordinance.” George Allen, a homecare worker who is also homeless, proclaimed “if we can build stadiums, we can build housing for the homeless.” Shanice Edwards, a case manager for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and described the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center as not having enough resources to accommodate the homeless. Edwards suggested that the city should offer more resources and affordable housing solutions to homeless individuals rather than “criminalize them and having a burden on our tax-payers.” Assemblyman Howard Watts (District 15) shared that one of his concerns was that “this is not going to solve the problem. It’s going to move it around. And I’m concerned that it’s going to just move outside of the limited enforcement area into other parts of our communities.”

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Henry Thorns, who ran for City Council against Cedric Crear and lost, addresses Crear directly in his testimony about the conditions of the Black community and homelessness issue, suggesting that offering jobs to people without homes, like other cities are doing, is an effective way to keep the city clean and support the economically vulnerable. Las Vegas, NV, November 6, 2019.

After 90 minutes of public comment, City Council took a recess before proceeding with their agenda. City Attorney Brad Jerbic and Jerry Walker, director of operations and maintenance for the City of Las Vegas, gave a presentation to illustrate the challenges that the city is facing with the homeless community. They described people living in drainage tunnels, sewage, and sanitation to be major areas of concern for the health and safety of residents in the Las Vegas valley. Jerbic shared a quote by Kathi Thomas Gibson, director of community services:

“I don’t wake up everyday inspired by the idea of managing the homeless issue. I wake up everyday with the thought of ending the homeless issue.”

He continued, “but the road to ending doesn’t start with wishful thinking — and doesn’t start by ignoring why we’re here and what is the problem.”

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Protestors in opposition to the ordinance filled the seats and raised their signs for the City Council to read. November 6, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

At the conclusion of the city’s presentation, members of the general public were given a second opportunity to participate in public comment. The lines in support and opposition were stretched to the walls. Former ACLU Nevada director Gary Peck declared, “this is not a real solution. I’ve been here for 25 years. I’ve spent a lot of time fighting with this council and other government entities that routinely violate the fundamental rights of homeless people.” Carolyn Wheeler, representing the Downtown Vegas Alliance, shared, “when individuals are camping in the public rights of way, it’s adversely affecting the businesses that are in downtown. So as a result, the Downtown Vegas Alliance supports this ordinance because we feel that this is an important and necessary first step in order to protect the investments that so many business owners are making in the downtown area.” Patrick Hughes, President & CEO of the Fremont Street Experience told the council, “as you know, there are many investments occurring downtown and we need to protect those. Their doorways are being hampered right now.”

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The rally and press conference was attended by several organizations that work on economic justice issues in Las Vegas, including Nevada Homeless Alliance, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and Make It Work Nevada. November 6, 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Host of the podcast ACAB Radio, Joseph Lankowski suggested that “anyone who votes for this ordinance is the worst kind of bully,” because council members would “not get [their] hands dirty,” relying on police to enforce the bill. “[Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department] has a proven track record of escalating instead of de-escalating when people are having mental health crisis,” said Lankowski. Leslie Turner of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada recommended that, “we should be able to bring all stakeholders to the table; and stakeholders include those that are directly impacted.'' Another elected official, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, made his debut testifying before the city council. Jones admitted he was a bit nervous considering this was a first for him; but says he was moved to come down to city hall after watching the proceedings on TV. He told city councilman that he would like to “re-register our offer from County Commission to continue to work with the city council towards a solution… [Clark County] is the designated social service provider for the entire county. And earlier this year the county commission devoted an additional $12M of marijuana fees to address homelessness in our community.”

The second round of public comment lasted for 100 minutes, bringing the total time for public comment to three hours. The councilmen and the mayor made closing remarks before votes were cast. Bill No. 2019-36 passed by a 5-2 vote with Councilman Brian Knudsen (Ward 1) and Councilwoman Olivia Diaz (Ward 3) objecting. An exasperated Mayor Goodman explained that “as we continue to build from a tiny little seed (this is the beginning seed) to build something that will flourish. And everytime we stop to have another conversation, or try to get funds, … and they [Nevada Legislature] have asked that we have another meeting and create another committee. We’ve been doing this for twenty years for those of you who are new to town. We have been having these conversations and we must have results.”

The ordinance goes into effect on Nov. 10, 2019 but without criminal enforcement. However, by Feb. 1, 2020, homeless individuals who do not seek refuge in a shelter can be cited/arrested for a misdemeanor when publicly-funded shelters are not at capacity. A misdemeanor offense in the state of Nevada is punishable up to $1,000 in fines or 6 months in jail. Advocates are concerned that this ordinance will unfairly target the poor, compound the problem of overcrowding jails, and give vulnerable people criminal records.