Group backing homeless ordinance is mum on tax to address homelessness

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(Photo: Michael Lyle)

Downtown businesses want the City of Las Vegas to respond to homelessness in the area, even if it means making it a crime to sleep on public sidewalks. 

However, the Downtown Vegas Alliance, which supports a measure critics say criminalizes homelessness, won’t say if it supports a proposed Downtown Business Improvement District, which would collect property taxes to help address larger issues surrounding homelessness.

The improvement district, proposed last year, would levy additional property taxes on downtown property owners to support a range of public improvement projects, including policies to address homelessness.

The City of Las Vegas said conversations with the Downtown Vegas Alliance regarding the proposal are still ongoing. “There are a lot of businesses involved and everyone has to be on the same page,” city spokesman Jace Radke said in an email. 

When asked if the Alliance supports the creation of the district as a way to help fund permanent solutions to address homelessness, the group declined to comment. 

The organization, which represents 70 businesses and nonprofits, does support a proposed ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to sleep or camp in a public right-of-way if there are available beds at one of the homeless shelters or space at the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

The homeless ordinance, which is scheduled to be discussed at the Nov. 6 City Council meeting, comes with up to a $1,000 fine and up to six-months in jail. It also specifically identifies areas in and surrounding downtown such as the Las Vegas Arts District, the Fremont East District and the Las Vegas Medical District as enforcement areas

While Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who is sponsoring the ordinance, and other city officials say the ordinance is about connecting those experiencing homelessness to services at the Courtyard — homeless outreach workers, civil rights groups, national homeless organizations and even Clark County officials disagree — city officials have also cited a need to protect businesses.

In an earlier statement, the Downtown Vegas Alliance wrote it was “part of an important and necessary first step to help protect those who have made significant investment in the area.”

In October the Alliance asked it’s membership to submit feedback on the proposed ordinance: 83 percent backed the ordinance, 25 percent supported the punishment and more than 70 percent thought the city did not have “the social or community services to support this ordinance.” 

The Downtown Vegas Alliance is made up of community and voting members along with a steering committee. The organization declined to clarify the degree of influence afforded to each tiered membership. Its website shows steering committee members get to provide input of the overall strategic plan for the group, and membership is divided between “voting members” and “community members.” 

Seth Schorr of the Downtown Grand, Jeff Victor of the D Las Vegas and John Culetsu of CIM Group are the steering committee members. 

It’s unclear how many Alliance members provided feedback to the survey or steered the Alliance’s position on the ordinance.

Lyft, Zappos and Fremont Street Experience, all voting members, didn’t respond for requests for comment. The Mob Museum, another voting member, declined to comment about the ordinance.

Sean Corbit, a spokesman with Southwest Gas, said the company, another voting member, didn’t participate in the survey or discussion surrounding the ordinance

“Southwest Gas has not taken a position on the proposed ordinance,” he said.

The Regional Transportation Commission, yet another voting member, also didn’t participate in the survey or provide input on the ordinance and “defers to local governments on issues under their purview,” said Catherine Lu, RTC manager of governmental affairs, media and marketing, in an email.

Beyond the Alliance, there are downtown business owners who are dealing with the impacts of people experiencing homelessness and want the city to respond. 

Makers & Finders owner Josh Molina said it has been an ongoing issue for at least six years. 

While he wasn’t aware about the ordinance, he supports the city taking an effort to address business concerns in the area. 

“Something is better than nothing,” he said.

Molina said there does need to be focus on broader solutions to homelessness. He also encouraged homeless outreach workers and civil rights groups to work with businesses to help them learn the best ways to engage with those experiencing homelessness. 

Other business owners support the ordinance, yet would only agree to being quoted anonymously.

“If you want to be thorough with your coverage, please include: loitering, vandalism, littering, defecating, urinating, theft, assault, intravenous drug use, and indecent exposure to your list of ‘camping and sleeping.’ Let’s be real,” one business owner wrote in an email. “Of course we are in favor of not living in a filthy cesspool, and allowing our guests easy and safe access.”

Another business owner said homelessness is a “sad and complicated issue.” 

“The real solutions involve treatment, rehabilitation, and returning the homeless to their family, or finding them permanent care,” the owner wrote. “We have representatives in our local government that understand these issues, and have empathy for those on the street, but they also have empathy for residents, visitors, workers, and businesspeople that are on the front lines dealing with the seemingly-endless defecation, vandalism, loitering, assault, burglary, and theft that these same people perpetrate. The council is doing the best they can on an emergency timeline and we appreciate it.”

The ordinance has been denounced by presidential candidates including former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro (who attended a rally opposing the proposal), U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and philanthropist Tom Steyer.

“I strongly oppose this proposed ordinance, which caters to the interests of business groups rather than our families and our communities,” Warren said in a statement.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.