Police rousting homeless Nevadans from the streets in 2018. (Nevada Current file photo)
“Discuss Anderson dairy bill – abey?” Scott Adams, the city manager for the City of Las Vegas, wrote in an email Aug. 10, days before the council was scheduled to vote on a proposed bill that keeps homeless people away from certain businesses.
Email records requested and obtained by Nevada Current show Anderson Dairy played a big role in drafting a proposed ordinance making it unlawful for a person to sit, lie down or camp on a sidewalk within 1,000 feet of any receiving dock of a food processing facility. The ordinance imposes a punishment of up to a $1,000 fine and not more than six months in jail.
Email records also show that health district officials found that homeless people posed no hazard to the business. City and business officials have pointed to health risks as the core argument for the punitive ordinance.
The agenda item was scheduled to be discussed Aug. 15 but got an abeyance until Sept 5.
Such statutes reflect a trend among cities to opt out of long-term solutions for homelessness and instead go for quick fixes that appease businesses, says Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. “It’s about treating the symptom,” Tars says.
On any given day, the homeless corridor — a section of the city where the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada provide services to those living on the streets — is lined with people doing anything to survive. They cling to the little shade provided by the buildings, set up tents and makeshift camps along the sidewalk.
The city has long been discussing the safety and health issues that develop as a result, and tiptoeing around the legality of what it can and cannot do. “While we cannot deny life-sustaining activity to individuals in public spaces, we can limit some spaces for health reasons,” wrote Sherri McMahon, an environmental officer with city Department of Public Works, in a March email exchange with Karen Duddlesten, chief community services officer with the city manager’s office
The latest effort to amend municipal code to limit activities around food processing facilities — that includes homeless corridor neighbor Anderson Dairy — began to take form April 2, when Councilwomen Michele Fiore and Lois Tarkanian submitted a memorandum requesting an ordinance. Councilman Cedric Crear added his name as a sponsor in June.
One day after the request was submitted, Russ Peterson with Anderson Dairy sent a letter to city officials laying out his various concerns — adding that other local businesses had similar concerns — about homeless people in the area, and urging the city to consider an ordinance to keep them away from businesses.
“It is nonsensical that one individual (or group) can be allowed to utilize the streets as their personal restrooms directly adjacent to food facilities that provide food to the general public,” Peterson wrote. “This is a direct health risk that must be stopped. In this light, an ordinance written with a 500 yard radius from food production, distribution and preparation facilities is not only prudent, but necessary. Any shorter distance does not provide enough distance from the mess and waste to protect the food that the general public consumes.”
Multiple emails from the Southern Nevada Health District show they inspected the area on Foremaster Lane.
“Councilmember Tarkanian called me today about the homeless near Anderson Dairy,” Joseph Iser, the Chief Health Officer for the district wrote in June. “She asked if I were concerned about the homeless being a health issue to the dairy. I told her that staff had checked it out not long ago, and we did not feel this was a hazard.”
Another health district official recalled the area being “in much worse condition in past visits.”
“While there were some homeless people on public sidewalks (est. 15-20), we did not encounter large piles of trash, excrement, putrescible waste, or significant solid waste issues,” he wrote.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture inspected Anderson Dairy in July.
“We’re aware of Anderson Dairy’s concern,” said Anna Vickrey, Food Safety Operations Manager for the department, in a statement. “But because our regulatory responsibility only covers the plant’s property, the surrounding area is beyond our legal authority to inspect, per Nevada revised statute 584,” .
Anderson Dairy didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The city attorney’s office proceeded with drafting a proposed ordinance. During that time, it reached out to Anderson Dairy, U.S. Foods and Reddy Ice, all located in the area, seeking their opinions on potential language. Staffers played with the wording and debated the distance. One reference discussed the ordinance exclusionary zones being 100 yards. Anderson Dairy asked for 500 yards. The final outcome is 1,000 feet (333 yards).
The city attorney’s office declined to comment.
Prior to the council meeting, Adams expressed concern in an email that 1,000 feet meant “a person in the courtyard is in violation.” The records didn’t indicate if the question was answered. Catholic Charities and the Courtyard, both at the heart of the homeless corridor, are about 500 yards away from Anderson Dairy’s entrance.
Behind the scenes, records also show the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada opposed what city officials referred to as “the Anderson Dairy bill.”
“Make it as uncomfortable as possible”
Weeks before the City Council was supposed to vote on the new ordinance, the council voted 5-2 to allocate money to erect a gate on Foremaster Lane on the west side of Las Vegas Boulevard, in an attempt to confine pedestrian foot traffic — people would be prevented from crossing the street to the southeast corner of Foremaster and Las Vegas Boulevard, where Anderson Dairy is located.
City staff argued the gate, which is estimated to cost between $39,000 and $45,000, was part of the Courtyard’s master plan. It would also increase pedestrian safety and address concerns from surrounding businesses.
While Southern Nevada recently saw a decrease in its homeless “point in time” count, the Las Vegas metro area has the nation’s eighth-highest homeless populations in 2017, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
In the City of Las Vegas’ recent report, “Homeless – Department Cost and Involvement FY18-19,” officials estimate homelessness services — both indirect and direct — cost the city more than $15 million in the last fiscal year, reflecting expenses ranging from court costs to repairs done by public works.
Ordinances that punish homeless people for being somewhere cities — and businesses — don’t want them are commonplace nationwide, said Tars with the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. A 2016 study released by the group examined 187 cities, and found 50 percent of them prohibit camping in particular public places, 27 percent prohibit sleeping in particular public places, 61 percent of cities prohibit panhandling in designated places, and bans on living in vehicles had increased by 143 percent.
Many cities have also faced legal challenges because of the laws they’ve enacted.
“We continue to see laws struck down time and time again, and then the same law gets passed in a new community,” Tars says. “We are seeing city attorneys sign off on these laws saying, ‘This version is constitutional.’ If they did the least amount of work and researched the words being used, they would see the language they’re using has been struck down five times before.”
The City of Las Vegas has invested in the Courtyard as a potential solution. Modeled after Haven for Hope based in San Antonio, people experience homelessness can access anything from medical and mental health assistance to potentially receiving a bus ticket back home if they are from out of town — the most frequently provided service. The facility is now open 24 hours and allows individuals to sleep there at night, but the current capacity is only about 100 people.
Meantime, documents indicate city officials have discussed more “sidewalk management” ordinances — punitive measures aimed against those experiencing homelessness.
“The city is willing to keep this initiative on-going indefinitely, the idea is to make it as uncomfortable as possible and get people to the (Homeless Resource Center) for services,” Derek Major, patrol sergeant with the department of public safety, wrote in an email.
Some efforts include potentially shutting down Huntridge Park two days a week to “break up the routines of the feeders and the homeless.”
Other immediate items include using “high profile street and sidewalk cleaning during graveyard hours (8 p.m. to 6 a.m.) in an attempt to disturb lodging and people sleeping on the sidewalks.” There have also been suggestions the city attorney’s office will prosecute shopping cart possessions.
Tars says increasing arrests or citations only puts more pressure on the overall system. “These tickets often turn into bench warrants,” he adds. “They get arrested, can’t pay bail and sit in the jail. If you figure it costs $100 to jail someone a night and they sit in jail for about a week, that could have gone to a studio apartment.”
According to the city’s homelessness costs report, the city estimates that about 815 people were in jail during the last fiscal year — the report didn’t specify charges — at a cost to the city of $1.3 million.
At the time of publication, the city hadn’t verified if possession of a shopping cart is currently being prosecuted.
In an email sent out July 26, Major wrote instructions on taking photos of shopping carts and calling someone from the city to come pick them up.
“Possession of a cart is illegal, period,” he wrote.
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