It’s not the homeless people who seek respite in Huntridge Circle Park that have neighbors fearing the park’s reopening a little more than a month from now, says Kathleen Kahr D’Esposito, president of the Huntridge Neighborhood Association.
It’s the drug dealers and bike thieves attracted by the “anarchists” who previously organized free feeding frenzies several times a week in the tiny park in the middle of Maryland Parkway near Charleston.
“When you have anarchy, someone loses, and in this case it’s the neighbors,” says D’Esposito, who claims an organization called Food Not Bombs is to blame for the complaints and alleged crime that prompted the park’s closure last October, under the guise of a renovation effort.
The City, under the leadership of then-Mayor Oscar Goodman, once attempted to ban Food Not Bombs from the park, but a legal challenge by the ACLU put an end to the effort.
“We don’t want people to feed people in the park,” says D’Esposito. “It creates a myriad of problems, not only for the people who live here but for the people they feed.”
“You had guys coming and feeding people and increasing the population in a neighborhood park to the point where other people could come, drug dealers, bicycle chop shops, and they’re able to hide in plain sight among the homeless and it brings down the wrath of the neighbors on the homeless, who only want respite.”
She says Food Not Bombs is less interested in helping people than it is in publicity.
“They want to say ‘we stuck it to the man.’” she says. “They just want to show the City, and the neighborhood or law enforcement that they can do what they want to do.”
“A bunch of neighbors tried to meet with them. They started filming, calling them names, asking them why they hate the homeless,” she says.
Food Not Bombs did not respond to the Current’s request for comment.
“See those rocks?”
Homelessness in public parks is a national issue, from Hawaii to the Northeast. Temporary closures are frequent, albeit short-lived fixes to a permanent problem.
“I don’t think it’s fair to frame the issue as the neighbors and the homeless,” says attorney Alex DeCastroverde, whose office is across the street from the park. “The proper way to frame the issue is do the neighbors deserve a safe environment for their families in a public park?
“Those who know how it was when it was open know it was far from safe.”
“It’s like night and day,” says DeCastroverde of the months since the closure in October. “My employees feel safe. The neighbors feel safe.”
“You can’t divorce the homeless issue from it,” admits DeCastroverde. “But the primary issue is safety. When the park closes, they spill over to the homes and businesses and with that comes needles and human waste.”
The city’s renovations appear designed to make the park a less comfortable destination for the homeless. Turf beneath the shade trees that line the perimeter of the park has been replaced with jagged rock. Concrete is being added and a fence will wall off the children’s playground.
But DeCastroverde says even the renovations render the park a more dangerous place.
“See those rocks? Those could be used as projectiles and thrown through someone’s window,” he says, pointing to the large stones beneath the shade trees.
Despite the renovations, D’Esposito doesn’t expect any change.
“I have grave misgivings about opening the doors,” she says. “It’s like the definition of insanity. Nothing’s changed. Our city parks need management. If it it comes through public private partnership, or through limited hours, or the park only opened through special permit, fine, but the parks need to be managed. “
“Nobody wants a closed park but if the alternative is a very dangerous condition or a closed park, I think the neighborhood would choose a closed park,” says DeCastroverde. “In my view it’s not fair to have them in a situation that’s dangerous because of the city’s actions.”
Those actions, or the lack thereof, include a focus on downtown redevelopment and projects in newer areas of the city at the expense of older communities.
“We’re being ignored by the City of Las Vegas,” says D’Esposito. “This is not a ritzy neighborhood. I was a single parent when I bought my house. I was a widow. I took the entire insurance check and put it as a down payment on my house. This is a working class neighborhood. This is not ‘the haves versus the have nots.’”
“It would be most helpful to us if the City would stop being so lazy and find another solution to feeding in the park,” D’Esposito says. “They’ve put their heads down like turtles since the ACLU took them to court and they were sued. Why can’t we get the city councilman, the city marshals, the city attorney and Metro in the same room so they can stop passing the buck?”
D’Esposito describes City Councilman Bob Coffin as a great ally but she says Coffin, who is not seeking re-election, has washed his hands of Circle Park.
“You think I have thrown up my hands?” asked Coffin, bristling at the suggestion.
“I am personally appealing to legislators to pass our bill to give us the resources to ‘fix’ the homeless problem. It is the root cause of everything, from feeders to neighborhood crime,” Coffin said. “People are just as unhappy as me that the problem exists, but we have encumbered more money than we have to handle this and it is far from enough.”
The bill to which Coffin refers is Assembly Bill 73, which would address homeless services by increasing sewer fees and the Real Property Transfer Tax, which is assessed to real estate transfers.
Coffin admits the Real Property Transfer Tax is likely to plummet during a recession, when the funds are needed most.
“The RPTT is not stable, obviously. I have chaired the Tax Committee. We will take whatever we can get from this session and we are garnering business and philanthropic support,” he says.
In the meantime, neighbors are focusing on the ideas of those seeking to replace Coffin.
Enter the candidates
“I intend to be in the face of the candidates and ask ‘what is your plan for the park?’” says D’Esposito.
Nevada Current posed that question to Ward 3 candidates.
“I’ve been doing research on green space management,” says candidate Melissa Clary, who resigned from the Huntridge Neighborhood Association to run for Ward 3. “I’ve talked to a third-party, non-profit that does manage some urban green space about coming on to operate the park. We’ve talked about partnerships.”
Clary is a former City staffer with the Department of Parks and Recreation. She says neighborhood parks don’t get the funding that larger, regional facilities enjoy.
Clary says she’s not a fan of the city’s Homeless Courtyard, which she says is duplicative of shelter services.
“I feel we could be aiding the shelters in their work,” she says. “As neighbors we were told a year ago we would see changes because of the Courtyard and it hasn’t happened.”
Clary says she’s a “huge proponent of fast-tracking low-income housing. We need third-party funding. The City can’t do this alone.”
Candidate Aaron Bautista says more programming in the park “might dissuade the homeless from returning.”
“If the park is not being used by the community, homeless people will have no problem taking it over. It’s just like with abandoned buildings, if it’s not being used, homeless will take over.”
Bautista says for the same reason, the nearby Huntridge Theater must also be renovated and put to use.
Bautista says he also suggests “park police on property and the park rules and hours should be strictly enforced.”
Bautista, who has engaged in homeless outreach, says he advocates a more hands-on approach to getting the homeless in touch with service providers.
Former Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz is also hoping to represent Ward 3. She suggests limited hours, private/public partnerships, cameras and more supervision from law enforcement at Circle Park.
She does not support keeping the park closed and is wary of events that would allow organizers to exclude people.
“It is concerning because it’s a public space and in my eyes it belongs to the community. I’d want to ensure the community has access to the park first and foremost,” she says.
Candidate David Lopez, who served as a park commissioner for the city, suggests limiting the days that Circle Park is open. He also favors closure of the park until a solution is identified.
“The community needs a breather to evaluate our situation,” he says on his website.
George Mingo Collaso, another candidate for Ward 3, admits he has “no idea what to do with that park.”
“I was just speaking with the person who is redesigning the park so we were talking about how to make use of the park but deter homeless people,” he said. “I’d like to see it reopened. We’re already lacking open spaces.”
Collaso says he thinks homeless drug users are the problem, “not the general homeless people. Maryland Parkway is a big road and I think a lot of people just go up and down Maryland and they think that’s a safe haven for drug use.”
Colasso suggests residents turn to technology by utilizing apps that help keep tabs on the neighborhood.
“We need a more modern version of Neighborhood Watch. If we made more people aware, we could help police ourselves and notify people of dangers in the neighborhood.”
Candidate Shawn Mooneyham wants to see cameras and increased law enforcement presence to preserve the city’s investment in Circle Park.
“I think if we can work on solving the Homeless Crisis people will be able to enjoy their parks again. I have pledged to work with business leaders, homeless shelters, non-profits, leaders from the state, county, and the other municipalities in the area so we can come up with a solution to this issue.”
Candidate Ruben Kihuen failed to respond to requests for comment.