LV advances homeless ordinance despite ‘no past problems’ cleaning sidewalks

By: - December 3, 2019 6:07 am

Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiore and City Councilman Brian Knudsen listen to public comment on a proposed ordinance restricting sidewalk use during cleaning hours.

At a public discussion on an ordinance that would further restrict sleeping and camping on sidewalks during cleaning hours, Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tem Michele Fiore said the proposal wasn’t about homelessness but rather about keeping city sidewalks clean.

However, in an email, a City of Las Vegas spokesperson said city officials don’t “expect any immediate increase in our current efforts, nor any major long term change from past practices” when it comes to street cleaning.

“There have been no past problems with sidewalk cleaning,” said city spokesman Jace Radke. “To prevent the various public health concerns that have plagued some cities it is important that the city of Las Vegas has a formal policy to proactively clean areas that are subject to continuous encampment activities.” 

The proposal, which the committee advanced to the Dec. 18 City Council meeting, will designate certain hours for cleaning public sidewalks in which “no person shall sit, lie, sleep, camp, or otherwise obstruct the cleaning of the designated public sidewalks by the Department of Operations and Maintenance.” The ordinance comes with a punishment with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. 

During Monday’s recommending committee meeting, Fiore pushed back against the notion the proposal criminalizes homelessness. 

“This isn’t a homeless ordinance,” she said. “This is about cleaning our sidewalks. So far to date, as we constantly hear rhetoric that’s not true, we are making sure to keep close tabs and no one has been arrested.”

Those opposed disagree.

“This bill, the way it’s written, makes it illegal to sit on a sidewalk, therefore is an ordinance that would criminalize homelessness,” countered Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. 

Paulsen, along with organizers from various civil rights groups, attended the committee to oppose the ordinance, citing concerns it would criminalize those experiencing homelessness. 

The language within the bill, Paulsen added, matches what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recognizes as criminalizing homelessness.

Activists opposed to a proposed city ordinance restricting sidewalk use during designated hours gather in front of City Hall.

“Examples are laws that include banning, camping, sleeping in public, vagrancy, sitting, loitering, evictions from homeless camps also known as homeless sweeps, restrictions on panhandling and banning living in vehicle,” she said. “The language of the bill absolutely fits within that definition. It is an anti-homeless bill and will criminalize homelessness.” 

The city hasn’t indicated the streets or designated hours for the proposed cleanings if the ordinance is approved.

The latest proposal isn’t the first time the city has received pushback from the community over similar ordinances. On Nov. 6, the council voted 5-2 to ban sleeping or camping on downtown sidewalks if there are open beds at an emergency shelter or space available at the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

“The passage of the ‘No Lodging’ ordinance, which identifies public streets where lodging is not allowed, by extension identifies streets where lodging is not prohibited,” Radke said. “For public streets where lodging is not prohibited and are subject to development of the aforementioned public health concerns, we need to proactively manage the consequences. This (new) ordinance is a first step in a formal delegation of authority to the Operations & Maintenance Director for mitigation efforts needed to keep sidewalks clean and sanitary.”

Joey Lankowski told the committee the latest proposal is another attempt to further criminalize the poor. “Only this (ordinance) is worse because you have no limitation,” he said. “There is nothing specific in the bill and leaves it ripe for abuse.”

Fiore refuted claims the city jails people for homelessness. 

“Every time someone comes up here and says we’re putting a homeless person in jail, I would really like for you to show me when the city of Las Vegas has ever jailed a homeless person,” Fiore said. “Especially since this ordinance has just been adopted.”

Wesley Juhl with the ACLU of Nevada called Fiore’s assertion that homeless people aren’t getting arrested patently false. 

“If you look at the bookings with the City of Las Vegas jail, there are crimes that mostly homeless people are getting arrested for like possession of a shopping cart or staying in a park after closing,” he said.

While those opposed called for the council to reject the proposal outright, they added at the very least the city should re-write the ordinance without the criminalization component.

“If the intention is to clean the streets, there needs to be some very clear parameters around when these laws could be enforced,” Paulsen said. “There is no limitation or parameters in the bill currently. It’s very problematic for that reason.”

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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.