Goodman resurrects ordinance to punish homeless sleeping on sidewalks

By: - September 26, 2019 6:44 am
rousted in corridor

Police rousting homeless people near Las Vegas Boulevard last year. (Nevada Current file photo)

City of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman is planning to resurrect, and expand, a proposed ordinance that could punish those experiencing homelessness for sleeping or camping on sidewalks.

If approved, the proposal would make it “a misdemeanor to camp or sleep in the public right-of-way, such as a sidewalk, in downtown and residential areas if space is available at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center or another non-profit service provider in the Corridor of Hope.” The ordinance is expected to be heard at an Oct. 14 recommending committee, which hears potential bills, before going on the city council agenda. 

People could be punished with up to a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. 

In an interview, Goodman said the ordinance wasn’t about punishment, but rather about the safety and health of the community and looking for ways to connect those on the streets to homeless services.

“I see this as helping people who have fallen on bad times,” she said. “This is also about safety. So many of our homeless population is in constant turmoil. This is about getting people into a safe environment.”

The City of Las Vegas proposed a similar ordinance in 2018 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. Similarly to the new ordinance, last year’s proposal had a punishment of up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

Documents obtained by the Current at the time found that Anderson Dairy, which is located within the homeless corridor, played a significant role in developing that first ordinance. The proposal was ultimately killed.

In addition to decreasing the number of feet from a food processing facility from 1,000 to 500 feet, the new proposed ordinance makes it a crime to sit, lie down, camp or sleep in a public right-of-way or residential areas. 

The new ordinance also identifies several specific areas where it would be enforced, including:

  • The Las Vegas Arts District
  • Cashman District (which is blocks away from the homeless corridor where services are located)
  • Fremont East District
  • The Las Vegas Medical District
  • Symphony Park District

Brad Jerbic, the city attorney, said the goal is to protect businesses in those areas. “If those businesses are injured or destroyed, that also ends the source of income that pays for homeless services,” he said.

Goodman added that taking steps to ensure businesses are protected could prompt them to support and invest in the city’s homeless resources.

If adopted, the Office of Community Services within the City of Las Vegas would inform the Department of Public Safety and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department if there are available beds. Before issuing a citation or making an arrest, an officer must “notify the person” of the violation and inform them of resources at the Courtyard.

If the Courtyard is full and other shelter beds are at capacity, then the ordinance would not be enforced.

“It’s good that they are looking at providing alternative shelter before enforcing the ordinance, but the question is if that alternative is really an adequate one,” said Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty.

According to the 2019 Southern Nevada Homeless Census, about 5,500 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night, with an estimated 14,000 expected to experience homelessness in 2019. 

The vast majority, about 3,300 or 60 percent, are unsheltered. The census noted about 51 percent sleep on streets, in desert encampments and in vehicles, 5 percent sleep in the tunnels and 4 percent use the Courtyard.

Only 1,700 people counted, or 30 percent, were in emergency shelters, with 10 percent in transitional housing.  

“The problem is not that people choose not to use shelter,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “The problem is that we don’t have enough shelter and supportive housing to meet the needs in our community. To solve the problem of people sleeping on our streets we need to invest in the solutions that we know work, like supportive housing, and abandon approaches like criminalizing the homeless, which worsens the problem by creating additional barriers for someone to get on their feet.”

At the time of the 2019 homeless count, 91 percent of shelters were at capacity. However, there are reason people might not be using shelters. 

Tars said a person might not go into emergency shelter because their pet isn’t able to stay with them, or it requires them to be separated from their partner.

Homeless outreach workers also point to other reasons those experiencing homelessness might not use shelters, including barriers to entering like sobriety requirements or lack of storage space, unsafe or unsanitary conditions, or the lack of shelter options for those who are transgender or gender nonconforming.

“If you can only guarantee shelter (at one of the facilities) for one night and not a second night, why would someone leave their encampment?” Tars asked. “You’re asking them to give up all the stuff they have acquired to survive in order to come into shelter. Those are the calculations people make.”

A day before City of Las Vegas killed its first proposed ordinance, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes district courts in Nevada, ruled that cities can’t punish people for sleeping on the streets if there isn’t adequate shelter.

The case developed In 2009 when 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. 

“We believe we are within the Boise guidelines,” Jerbic said.

He added he plans to sit down with ACLU of Nevada to seek their input. The ACLU was unavailable for comment.

Even if the ordinance is within the parameters of the ruling, Tars asked if having a misdemeanor or potential jail time is the best response.

“If somebody doesn’t have the income to get into housing and they end up with a fine or fee or an actual arrest, how is any of that helping them get out of homelessness?” he asked. “Many homeless people are actually trying to save up their first and last month rent. If you give them a $1,000 fine, that person is going to be on the streets longer.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.