Local data confirms homelessness is criminalized

none
Homeless and civil right groups protest Mayor Carolyn Goodman's State of the City. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

More than 150 people were thrown in jail last year for possessing a shopping cart.

The City of Las Vegas can’t confirm how many were homeless, but advocates note the offense is more common for those experiencing homelessness.

Across the country, those who are homeless are being targeted by more and more low-level criminal ordinances enacted by local governments.

In its 2019 “Housing Not Handcuffs” study, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reported cities have been increasing the number of ordinances that criminalize homelessness with laws that have been enacted to restrict sidewalk use and the places people can sleep, target vagrancy and punish people for remaining in parks after they close.

“Every time you create a new crime, you’re going to send more people to jail,” said Wesley Juhl, the communications manager with the ACLU of Nevada. 

The question of what crimes people experiencing homelessness are booked on has come into play as the City of Las Vegas has proposed an ordinance advocates say will criminalize poverty. 

On Wednesday, the City of Las Vegas is expected to take up an ordinance that 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.” Obstructing the sidewalk during these hours, which have yet to be decided, could be punishable with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. 

“If I were to park somewhere where it’s not permitted during street cleaning, I could receive anywhere from $25 to a $100 ticket,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “If someone is sleeping on the sidewalk during a time the streets are being cleaned, they are going to receive a misdemeanor or be arrested. How unjust is that?”

The proposal, spearheaded by Mayor Carolyn Goodman, comes after the city voted Nov. 6 to ban camping and sleeping on sidewalks in and surrounding downtown Las Vegas if there are shelter beds available or space open at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. 

Even as the city increases penalties for sidewalk use, current laws already have resulted in people being incarcerated. 

Of the 1,096 inmates booked at the Clark County Detention Center for obstructive use of a sidewalk from December 2018 through November 2019, 251 were identified as homeless. Data from CCDC indicates other charges could have been included. 

However, 418 people, 89 who were identified as homeless at the time of booking, were arrested solely on the charge of obstructive use of a sidewalk. 

“That’s a shame,” Paulsen said. “It’s a shame we wasted resources jailing people when their only crime was (obstructing a sidewalk) when those resource could have better been used for securing stable housing.”

A 2017 Detention Services Division report compiled by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department previously showed that there had been a 181 percent increase (or 571 bookings) for obstructive use of a sidewalk from the previous year. The 2018 report didn’t indicate if there was a similar increase.

Metro spokesman Aden Ocampo-Gomez said it was unclear from the 2017 report whether the number of bookings was solely for obstructive use of a sidewalk or if it was coupled with other offenses. 

Even if they were arrested and booked, Ocampo-Gomez continued, they didn’t necessarily result in lengthy stays at CCDC. The shortest amount of time someone spent inside for obstructive use of a sidewalk was 26 minutes. 

“A person is considered booked (at CCDC) even if they come through one door and walk right out the other,” he said. 

The tactic, he explained, prevents street performers arrested on the Strip from setting up again after their initial encounter with law enforcement.  

City jail bookings during 2019 showed 36 people were incarcerated for obstructing a sidewalk. City officials said they were unable to break down booking data by those identified as homeless. 

Other homeless-related crimes have resulted in more people being locked up. 

City booking data showed

  • 204 people were arrested and incarcerated for remaining in a park after hours;
  • 53 people were booked for misuse of a bus shelter or bus bench;
  • 69 were arrested for vagrancy;
  • and 153 were incarcerated for possession of a shopping cart, including 19 for the “unlawful possession” of a shopping cart.

“This confirms what we already knew to be true, that homeless people are being arrested just for being homeless and the difficulties they face on the streets,” Juhl said. “I don’t think people should be incarcerated for these at all.” 

Another 268 people were arrested for jaywalking. 

“Jaywalking we see a lot especially in areas with a lot of encampments,” Juhl said. “I’ve seen (law enforcement) use jaywalking to go after people engaged in street feeding. It’s just one of those things when you have someone you want to remove from an area, you kind of approach the situation with, ‘Well, what can I get them on?’ ”

The City of Las Vegas previously estimated one in five inmates within the city jail was homeless. But it was a rough estimate because the Department of Public Safety doesn’t differentiate between inmates who are genuinely homeless at the time of arrest and those who lack identification and refuse to give an address, who could still be homeless.

With major gaps in the available data on how often individuals experiencing homelessness are incarcerated, Juhl said it only makes sense to stop drafting new ordinance without knowing the implications. 

“I want the city to be in a position where they can make evidence-based policies and (the lack of data) suggested they don’t even have the evidence necessary to have evidence-based policies,” Juhl said. “It requires data, and they are not tracking it.”

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.