When a person experiencing homelessness gets a citation they can’t pay or is arrested for a crime connected to their homelessness, Nevada Homeless Alliance executive director Emily Paulsen said it could jeopardize the possibility of getting off the streets.
Paulsen said there are about 1,800 people on the Homeless Management Information System queue waiting for housing assistance. If one of those waiting went to jail, they would lose their spot.
“If someone is out of touch with the service system for 90 days, we take them off the queue because we have to make the assumption they’ve either self-resolved, moved out of the community or they are in an institution, which could include jail or a nursing home,” she said. “So say Joe Smith is on the top of the (HMIS) list today and he gets arrested. The outreach agencies are going to be around town for a week looking for him. After a certain amount of time, they move on to the next person. So Joe just lost that opportunity. You have to wait for Joe to come back out of jail and find his way to get another housing assessment done. This is what happens.”
Even an unpaid fine, Paulsen added, can be just as hazardous. “You can’t pay a fine, it goes into warrant and you can’t get a job or get into an apartment,” she said. “Say we find a landlord willing to house a client in one of their units. They are still going to do a background check. You can’t put people there who have warrants.”
The negative impact that can come from citations is why Paulsen, along with homeless outreach workers and civil rights groups, gathered in front of City Hall Wednesday morning to protest a proposed City of Las Vegas ordinance they argued could criminalize homelessness and push them deeper into a cycle of poverty.
If approved, the ordinance would make it a misdemeanor to sleep or camp in a public right-of-way if there are beds available at emergency shelters or space at the Homeless Courtyard Resource Center. The punishment comes with up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who is sponsoring the ordinance, reiterated on Twitter Monday that the proposal is about the health and safety of the community and will help connect people to homeless services.
“The mayor said this ordinance is about compassion, but that’s ridiculous,” Paulsen told the crowd. “There is nothing compassionate about jailing and ticketing people for not having a home. This proposal is absurd, cruel and unjust.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes district courts in Nevada, ruled in 2018 that cities can’t punish people for sleeping on the streets if there isn’t adequate shelter. The city argues since the ordinance only works when shelter beds and space at the courtyard are at capacity. The community services department would alert Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the department of public safety of capacity every night.
However, Wesley Juhl, communications director with the ACLU of Nevada, countered the ordinance would still block people from life-sustaining activities.
“Those are things people do on the streets just to survive,” he said. “We’re talking about putting down a tarp down on hot pavement, sitting down in the shade or using a blanket when it’s cold. Under this ordinance, these are the things that are going to cost people $1,000 or lock them up behind bars.”
Thomas Randle El from the nonprofit Straight from the Streets pointed out it’s not even cost effective to enforce the law since it would mean more people in jail, which would cost “taxpayers’ money.” It costs upwards of $100 per day to jail a person.
But those most familiar with the harmful impacts of citations and the threat of jail time are those experiencing homeless, who were among the activists in front of City Hall.
That included Eric Simpson, who moved to Las Vegas in 2017 to take care of an ailing mother.
After his daughter died, Simpson turned to drugs and, as a result, fell into homelessness. “I woke up and thought, ‘this is not you’ so I went to rehab,” he said. “When I got out, there wasn’t any affordable housing.”
He is working to get off the streets, and currently relies on an available bed at Catholic Charities while he works a temp job and saves up money.
Many other folks on the streets, he added, are working to save up enough money or waiting for assistance to help them exit homelessness.
A jail sentence would stop the process. “You get out of jail and you’re back to square one,” he said. “They put you in jail for six months and all your stuff is lost.”
While leaving a bad taste in the community’s mouth, the proposal has even attracted the attention of national politicians such as former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, who stopped by the rally to implore the city not to “criminalize desperation.”
“We have had enough in the last two years of a government criminalizing desperation,” he said. “We don’t need to do that in local communities.”
Castro faced similar issues with homelessness when he was mayor in San Antonio. Las Vegas’ Courtyard is modeled after San Antonio’s resource center.
“There were a lot of reasons people don’t seek shelter in a homeless courtyard,” he said. “There are people who are afraid to stay in that courtyard. There are people with other needs that compelled them not to go to that homeless courtyard. You shouldn’t treat them like criminals.”
The ordinance is slated to be discussed at the Nov. 6 City Council meeting. However, the groups are hoping Goodman pulls the ordinance beforehand.
If it does pass, Paulsen worries it could have a chilling effect on the outreach being done, especially considering the City of Las Vegas’ outreach team includes Metro officers.
“If someone has a warrant, they disengage from services,” Paulsen said. “They won’t trust law enforcement and officers doing street outreach if they have a warrant. They would be scared they’ll be taken to jail.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of the story stated the incorrect date when the ordinance is slated to be discussed. The proposed ordinance is scheduled to be discussed Nov. 6.