Photo: Michael Lyle
Huntridge Circle Park, which is shut down until Nov. 30, is expected to reopen to the public again. That’s despite the fact various residents in the Huntridge neighborhood have called — and some City of Las Vegas officials have even discussed — its permanent closure to keep homeless people away.
A July email obtained by Nevada Current showed department of public safety officials toyed with the idea of shutting down the park multiple days a week in “an effort to break up the routines of the feeders and the homeless.”
“I’ve dismissed those ideas,” says Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin “The park will reopen again.” As of Oct. 4, the space was closed off for maintenance and improvement projects, Coffin says.
Derek Major, the Department of Public Safety official who authored the email, declined to comment.
Shutting down the park would fit in with the requests of Huntridge residents, who have taken to the Huntridge Neighborhood Association Facebook page to voice frustrations.
“The Huntridge Circle Homeless Camp is at full capacity this morning. Close it down. It has ceased to be a park,” one man wrote.
“First and foremost fence it in and have (radio-frequency identification) chip to access the gates,” another wrote.
Even with it temporarily closed, neighbors are hoping the move becomes permanent. “Let’s hope this ‘improvement’ project gets delayed, delayed, delayed,” one man wrote.
The fight over Huntridge Park isn’t new.
The park — and the homeless who frequent the area — has been a point of contention for years. “I continue to receive calls from people in the neighborhood who are discontent (about the park),” Coffin says. “Some are angry at me. Some are angry at the homeless.”
The patch of land, which sits in the middle of the Huntridge neighborhood on Maryland Parkway near Charleston Boulevard, is a spot frequently used by those experiencing homelessness as a place to sleep and escape the summer sun during high temperatures. The city has also planned reducing turf in the park beneath trees — where the shade is.
Coffin, who grew up in the area, says the park wasn’t always like this, but in the last decade, corresponding with the recession, more homeless began to use the area. “It closed (in 2006) when two men got into a fight, and one got killed,” he says. “It was closed until 2011.”
During that time, the city adopted an ordinance to prohibit the “providing of food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee.” The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city to stop the ordinance, which resulted in a four-year battle. The two entities came to an agreement in 2010. “It stipulates that you can’t hassle the homeless or hustle them out,” Coffin says.
The issue of feeding the homeless still remains a hot-button issue, with many voicing animosity toward those who use the park as a place to pass out food. A Facebook page for Huntridge Circle Park — it’s administered by a private individual and not city officials — has criticized organizations and people who hand out food.
“The public feedings are the number one problem there,” one member of the Huntridge Neighborhood Association wrote on the Facebook page. “There is a direct correlation and it’s verifiable with crime stats.”
A cost analysis done by the City of Las Vegas notes that some of the added maintenance and cleanups of city parks are the result of homelessness.
Internal documents from city officials estimate homelessness cost the parks and recreation department about $300,000 in the last fiscal year, with about $100,000 going toward repairing damage and cleanings.
Much of the debate is also over the safety of the park.
After an 80-year-old resident was attacked over the summer, the debate was intensified and many pointed fingers at the homeless. A city email noted the individual, later identified as Herbert Scott Rogers, wasn’t homeless — though some in the association argue he often visited the park.
Following the incident, city council candidate David Lopez penned an opinion piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal asking — yet again — for city officials to “re-evaluate Huntridge Park’s hours.”
“Perhaps we could limit the days it is open and look into a public-private partnership program, as they do in San Diego. This would give the community more flexibility as to what happens at the park. In addition to this, as painful as this is for me to say, I call on the city to temporarily close Huntridge Park until our neighborhood associations, coupled with city staff, determine a way to mitigate the problem.”
Echoing concerns from neighbors, Lopez wrote that there has also been a growth of criminal activity. “I am not generalizing about the homeless being violent. We must, however, work to weed out those who may do the community harm.”
Coffin says the city can’t post city marshals at the park to monitor activities because it would be too expensive.
In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes district courts in Nevada, ruled cities can’t punish people for sleeping on the streets, further stymieing efforts to criminalize homelessness.
Regardless of what’s done at the park, a bigger issue remains. More than 6,000 people were identified as homeless during the Southern Nevada Homeless Census Point in Time count, and 63 percent are unsheltered. Las Vegas is the nation’s 29th largest metropolitan statistical area, but has the 8th highest homeless population of U.S. metro areas.
“We have about 1,700 people today who are on a waiting list, who have asked for help and are waiting for that help.” Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance said during a KNPR interview. “They are waiting to be put into permanent housing or to receive rental assistance.”
If people want to solve the homeless crisis, and change the dynamics of the parks, Paulsen says there needs to be more money dedicated to fund more housing.
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