The Las Vegas City Council voted 7-0 to kill a proposed ordinance making it unlawful for people to sit, lie down or camp on a sidewalk within 1,000 feet of a food processing facility.
The bill prompted criticism from community members who feared it targeted those experiencing homelessness. People in the homeless corridor — a section of the city that has services from nonprofits like Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and is located about 500 yards away from Anderson Dairy and other businesses — could have faced up to a $1,000 fine and not more than six months in jail.
“This bill criminalizes people in our community for the unfortunate condition of being without a home,” Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, said during the council meeting Wednesday. “Criminalizing the homeless does nothing to help them escape and makes the problem far worse by creating additional barriers to housing and employment.”
The City of Las Vegas has been working to address homelessness. Las Vegas is the 29th largest metro area in the country, but a 2017 report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development ranked the Las Vegas metro has having the eighth largest homeless population. The City has poured efforts into its Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which is located within the homeless corridor and allows about 100 people a place to sleep at night.
Records obtained by Nevada Current indicated city officials referenced health concerns in the area as the reason behind the proposed ordinance. Those emails also showed that a Southern Nevada Health District official wrote that the district’s inspectors “did not feel this was a hazard.” City records also showed officials worked closely with Anderson Dairy to develop what was described in one email as the “Anderson Dairy bill.”
“This item came to our attention when it was discussed at the Recommending Committee Meeting,” says Tod Story, executive director for the ACLU of Nevada. “We started a dialogue that this was a wrong-headed pursuit. Whatever reason this came to be, we didn’t think it would pass Constitutional muster.”
The proposal even got national attention from organizations such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The alliance is informed that the City of Las Vegas is considering an ordinance making it illegal to sit, lie down, stand or camp within certain parts of the city,” the organization wrote in a statement Wednesday. “While the alliance is not able to comment on the specifics of the ordinance in the context of Las Vegas, our work throughout the country has convinced us that such ordinances can, as a practical matter, interfere with communities’ attempts to reduce the number of people who are homeless.”
Council members didn’t discuss why the item was struck from the agenda.
“This was going to be controversial and would have been unnecessary,” Story adds. “It would have violated the constitutional rights of the homeless. I’m pleased they removed it from the agenda today.”
Story’s warning about the unconstitutionality of the ordinance was bolstered earlier this week. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes district courts in Nevada, ruled Tuesday that cities can’t punish people for sleeping on the streets — an illustration of what can happen when cities pass ordinances that criminalize homelessness.
In 2009, six homeless individuals sued Boise, Idaho over an ordinance that prohibited them from sleeping in public spaces. Attorneys argued the city had about 4,500 homeless people yet only 700 shelter beds.
The court ruled the ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
“Criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the Court for holding that it is also unconstitutional” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty said in a statement. “It’s time for Boise to stop trying to hide its homelessness problem with unconstitutional ordinances, and start proposing real solutions.”
The organization released a study in 2016 that examined 187 cities and found the majority of them have laws that punish activities such as camping in public places, panhandling and living in their vehicles.
In a statement, Howard Belodoff with Idaho Legal Aid Services, Inc. said the outcome from the court decision will have a ripple effect across the country.
“Cities will have to address real solutions to the complex issues faced by homeless individuals and families rather than just create more barriers and fill more jails with persons who only needed a place to sleep for the night,” said