City’s rush job on ordinance surprises councilman, homeless advocates

homeless advocates outside Las Vegas City Hall
Protestors rally outside City Hall ahead of the Las Vegas City Council meeting Wednesday. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Las Vegas City Council’s vote on an ordinance criticized for criminalizing homelessness happened in less than 90 seconds — so quickly that one council member didn’t have the time to vote.

The ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to occupy a city sidewalk during cleaning hours. The item, which included no discussion or comments from any of the council members on Wednesday, initially passed 5-1 vote with only Councilwoman Olivia Diaz voting against it, but the record has since been adjusted to 5-2 to reflect Councilman Brian Knudsen’s vote.

“I may have misread the signs and made a mistake of going to the bathroom, but my vote would have remained the same,” Knudsen said. “I can’t comment on why it didn’t have any discussion because I haven’t spoken to (Mayor Carolyn Goodman). I know (not having public discussion) threw many people off guard.”

“Housing, not handcuffs,” some in attendance shouted following the item’s approval. Their chants were quickly subdued as the council moved on without a second thought. 

Rushing through the agenda item didn’t sit well with some of the audience, which included homeless providers and civil rights advocates who waited hours to hear further details on the ordinance. They’d hoped to make a case to the council on why it should decline to pass it.

The meeting started at 9 a.m. but the item wasn’t heard until slightly after 2 p.m. Many were “shocked and dismayed” by how quickly the council approved the ordinance.

“Homeless service providers and directly impacted people waited all day to make comment,” said Emily Paulsen, executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance.

Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the organization is looking into whether the council violated open meeting law by not holding a public discussion on the item. 

The ordinance prohibits people from sitting, lying, sleeping, camping or “otherwise obstructing the cleaning of the designated public sidewalks” during designated cleaning hours set by the Department of Operations and Maintenance. A spokesman for the city didn’t have any additional details on the designated hours, and those specifics weren’t mentioned during Wednesday’s meeting.

The ordinance’s punishment, which comes with up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine, is what has raised concerns among civil rights groups and homeless providers. 

During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, several argued the proposal would criminalize the homeless and excessive fines and jail time make it harder for them to exit homelessness.  

Some, seeing the ordinance as inevitable, pled with the council to at least consider reducing the punishment. 

“If you’re moving forward, I hope you make it easier for people to cope with this particular ordinance and think about reducing the fine and misdemeanor status of violating the ordinance,” said Carmella Gadsen with Battle Born Progress. “If a person can’t afford to eat, they can’t pay $1,000 … You can park your car for $25 fines or $100 fines, but if you sleep it’s $1,000. I hope you create some equity.”

The council doesn’t address the audience during public comment but typically discusses proposals at a later time during the agenda. That didn’t happen.

During public comment, the mayor asked all of those opposed to put their contact information down in order for the city to contact them. She added that the city wants people to do more than just speak, but to “do something.” 

“We are going to start with you helping us,” Goodman said. “We are going to get you involved with helping.”  

One activist shot back, saying many of the people attending the meeting, homeless providers and those who have experienced homelessness, are “already on the ground working with people.”

“Don’t tell a directly impacted person to do more,” said Kimberly Estrada. “These are the experts. These are the people who should make the decisions, and I am doing something by standing up here and opposing this ordinance.”

Story called the city’s approach to homelessness bewildering. “(The city) says it is trying to help people without any regard to how it’s punishing people,” he said. 

The city, he continued, hasn’t reached out to the ACLU to make sure the ordinance wouldn’t be violating civil rights. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which Nevada falls under, ruled cities can’t criminalize homeless individuals for sleeping on streets if there aren’t reasonable shelter accommodations. The Supreme Court of the United States denied taking up the case in December solidifying the ruling.

Since the announcement of the latest sidewalk ordinance in late November, there have been three demonstrations in front of City Hall protesting the proposal. 

The first protest was prior to the recommending committee meeting Dec. 2 when the proposal was first heard — again it wasn’t still publicly discussed despite opposition during public comment — and advanced to a larger council by Councilwoman Michele Fiore and Knudsen. 

Protestors also gathered outside City Hall before Goodman’s State of the City on Jan. 9 and then hours prior to Wednesday’s vote.

Wednesday’s ordinance is the second proposal the city has passed that restricts sidewalks use and penalizes homelessness within the last three months.

After bypassing the recommending committee meeting, the council voted 5-2 to pass a ordinance Nov. 6 that prohibits sleeping or camping on sidewalks if there are open beds at an emergency shelter or space available at the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center.

It will be enforced starting in February.

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.