The City of Las Vegas frames it as a means of getting homeless people off the streets and connected with services.
Opponents call it an affront to humanity and an effort to criminalize the most vulnerable among us merely for being poor.
Whether for or against, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s proposed sidewalk sleeping ban riled up a public known more for yawning at matters of public policy than engaging in discourse.
A broad cross-section of Las Vegans stood in line for hours, most waiting for their chance to implore the Las Vegas City Council to reject the proposal that could jail homeless people who refuse shelter space when it’s available.
More than 6,500 individuals and families in Southern Nevada lack permanent housing – with 67 percent sleeping outside, according to the city’s website.
While city sanitation officials detailed the potential danger of storm drains clogged with human waste seeping untreated into Lake Mead, the valley’s water supply, no one from the city addressed the impact of confronting the raw sewage problem only when shelter beds are available.
“It’s a sham,” attorney Gerald Gillock said during public comment, noting the proposal’s focus on temporary shelter rather than a comprehensive approach addressing wages, housing, mental health, substance abuse, and veterans’ services. “It doesn’t require the city to do anything.”
“Being homeless is not a crime. Nor should it be treated as if it’s a crime,” said attorney Chris Kaempfer, who routinely appears before the council. “But I have a client to represent. Homeless people outside his business have cost him business.”
“You live on the streets for a week and tell me you don’t go crazy,” Henderson resident Joe Lankowski told the council . “They’re products of their environment, so it’s not even their fault.”
Lankowski alleged supporters of the ordinance were engaging in bullying.
“You’re not even going to get your hands dirty,” he said. “ You’re going to send a bully with a badge to do the bullying for you. Anybody who votes for this ordinance is the worst kind of bully.”
George Allen, a homeless home care worker, questioned why local governments can’t manage to address the need for low-income housing while making public funding available for a football stadium.
“This is a very complicated issue that cannot be distilled into ‘we need more bathrooms, we need transitional housing,’” city attorney Brad Jerbic said. “We know that. If it were that simple we wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
“A roof over your head is the goal of every person in this room,” Jerbic told the audience. “Jobs don’t pay enough. Today $18 an hour is a living wage? Who makes this kind of money? Nobody.”
Jerbic said the proposed ordinance is both viable and enforceable, and provides the geographical limitations the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has indicated may be acceptable over a general ban, which the court struck down as unconstitutional.
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in a case brought against the city of Boise, Idaho.
“You can sleep on the street. You just can’t pick your street,” Jerbic said, noting the ordinance applies only to master-planned areas including the Historic West Side, some neighborhoods, and areas within 500 feet of a food loading dock.
Jerbic noted that Boise didn’t offer a city shelter as an alternative to the homeless.
But opponents contend the Courtyard is hardly a shelter. It has mats on cold concrete rather than beds, provides garbage cans rather than lockers for safekeeping of possessions, and lacks a roof – a basic element of shelter.
“Our courtyard is not perfect but our courtyard will take you. Not every shelter will,” Jerbic said, noting the Courtyard is a so-called low barrier shelter, admitting anyone, including families.
“We have removed barriers such as pets, partners and possessions. However they define their family we do not separate people. A mother with her 16-year-old son aren’t separated,” said Chief Community Services Officer Lisa Morris Hibler. “It’s not the best place for children but we quickly get them into other housing.”
“The model could and should be replicated throughout Southern Nevada to provide greater access to immediate services,” Hibbler said.
“I’m not going to stand up here and tell you we’ve got the answer to homelessness,” Jerbic said. “That would be ridiculous. It’s been misrepresented from day one that that’s what is says.”
“You’re not getting a ticket because you’re homeless. You’re getting a ticket because you’re on the street. You’re getting a ticket because you’re breaking the law,” he said.
“Since August of 2017 when the Courtyard opened at 314 Foremaster Lane, more than 28,000 requests for services have been taken. In July of 2019 alone, city staff assisted more than 1,400 individuals at the Courtyard,” the city’s website reads.
Courtyard overnight attendance averaged 296 per night in Fiscal Year 2019 and 346 per night for the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2020.
But data provided at the City Council meeting indicates only 234 “guests” of the Courtyard received medical or mental health services in Fiscal Year 2019.
55 have received medical or mental health care in the first three months of this fiscal year, which began July 1. That’s fewer than 20 people a month.
The Courtyard provided 177 homeless people with benefit assistance in FY 2019, and to 95 in the first quarter of FY 2020.
Assistance from the Courtyard with the most pressing need for Southern Nevada’s homeless population, housing, remains elusive.
The facility provided rental and move-in assistance to 45 households in FY 2019 and to six households in the first quarter of FY 2020.
The city provided temporary bridge housing to 94 households in FY 2019 and to 25 so far in FY 2020.
The most popular service provided by the Courtyard remains a bus ticket home — 573 households took advantage of the program in Fiscal Year 2019.
“We are trying to create a model that can be replicated throughout Southern Nevada,” Goodman said. “Every dollar has been leveraged to provide the highest level of service.”
Representatives of the Fremont Street Experience and the Downtown Vegas Alliance spoke in support of the ordinance, but noted the need for a comprehensive solution.
Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones made an appearance at City Hall to join in public comment and to offer to work with the city toward a solution.
“We are the designated social service provider for the entire county,” he said.
Councilman Cedric Crear noted his support for the measure.
“You only have to go to Los Angeles,” Crear said of Skid Row. “There are people who have barbecue pits outside their tents. They are breeding pit bulls. We cannot have a Skid Row in our community.”
“Every single one of you, when you leave this meeting, is going to pass by someone who is sleeping on the sidewalk, defecating, making strange noises because they’re mentally ill, and that’s inhumane because we walk right by them,” Councilman Stavros Anthony stated.
“I have complete faith that when these people go into the criminal justice system they’re not going to get a thousand dollar fine,” Anthony said. “They’re not going to get six months in jail. They’re probably going to get some help.”
“This ordinance is about safety, health and sanitation,” said Councilwoman Michele Fiore. “The ordinance can only be enforced if we have the available space.”
Councilman Brian Knudsen said he couldn’t see the logic of involving police with the homeless.
He also questioned whether the city could realistically connect clients with services.
“How long does it take to get into transitional housing? More than a year?”
Councilwoman Olivia Diaz noted the Courtyard has “a lot of gaps. We have to rely on other service providers. I’m also concerned, as an educator, about our homeless youth and their families living in their cars and trying to keep it together.”
“We need to focus on transitional and affordable housing. We do need to provide the caseworkers to get people back on the right track,” Diaz said.
“When we can say we have the beds, we have the space and they’re still not taking the opportunities for transitional housing, then this would have been the best choice.”
“What we have created is flawed. But it’s a step,” Goodman said, lamenting the Legislature’s failure to appropriate additional support for affordable housing. “We went up there and made an appeal for everyone who lives in this situation. We got nowhere. We didn’t get help from other jurisdictions. We went up there.”
Goodman praised activist Leslie Turner, who testified against the proposal but offered to share ideas with the city.
“You are going to drive people into the criminal justice system if they’re not already in the criminal justice system,” Turner told the council, urging them not to pass a law that creates harm to those who are already vulnerable.
“When she spoke my first thought was, every one of us, it starts with me,” Goodman said. “What are you doing positively to get us the funds? To help us direct our dollars to this system?”
“We’ve had many candidates running for president take on Las Vegas. We wish they had the silver bullet for us,” Goodman said, referring to Julian Castro, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have publicly criticized the ordinance.
Support for the ordinance was limited at a meeting punctuated by chants, outbursts, and orders from Mayor Goodman to City Marshals to remove members of the audience.
“Who said that?” Goodman demanded as she made her final statement before voting on the proposed ordinance. “This is my time. Get that person out of here right now. I was so respectful to all of you. I deserve the time. Anyone else wants to get up right now. Get out.”
“There’s one person sitting there shaking his head and I ask what have you done for anyone?” Goodman snapped.
After a marathon hearing that took up much of the day, the council voted five to two in favor of the ordinance, with Knudsen and Diaz casting the dissenting votes.