U.N. expert to Southern Nevada: House your homeless

‘Forcing people to live on the streets in the face of a pandemic is a death sentence’

By: - March 31, 2020 6:14 am

People arriving at a make-do social distancing area set up in a parking lot at Cashman Center in March. (Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images)

When people kept sending Leilani Farha, the special Rapporteur on adequate housing for the United Nations, photos of people sleeping on the ground as part of Southern Nevada’s makeshift set up for those experiencing homelessness, she thought it was unconscionable.  

Around the United States and even in other countries, she said governments are working to rent out hotel rooms to make sure thousands of people living on the street have a place to stay during the global health pandemic. Southern Nevada should do the same, she added.

“The city government should move expeditiously to get its homeless population into some kind of decent accommodations with four walls and a roof to be safe from contracting the virus and safe from spreading the virus,” Farha said in an interview Monday. “That may mean the government is going to expense renting some hotel rooms. This is life and death. Forcing people to live on the streets in the face of a pandemic is a death sentence.” 

On Saturday, the City of Las Vegas and Clark County announced it would direct those experiencing homelessness to Cashman Field for nightly sleeping accommodations. Since then, photos of people sleeping on the concrete of the parking lot have sparked outrage.  

“Forcing people to sleep on the pavement without shelter is completely unacceptable and inhumane,” said Holly Welborn, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada. “People deserve a dignified solution, medical screenings, access to healthcare, and an adequate place to sleep. People need to be inside and in conditions that allow them to appropriately distance themselves. Erecting an emergency shelter that provides the same essential services as current shelters is an acceptable temporary option until public-private agreements are in place to shelter at-risk individuals in hotel rooms or other accommodations, but this is not that.”

Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said he doesn’t know why the 150,000 vacant hotel rooms in Southern Nevada aren’t being considered.  

“These hotels and casinos are screaming for (federal) aid money and for more dollars,” he added. “The City of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada are about to get billions of dollars in federal assistance, some of which are explicitly directed toward homelessness. Those are dollars that could go toward putting people into housing and to help the hurting hospitality industry.”

Emily Paulsen, the executive director for the Nevada Homeless Alliance, said housing is health care. “Getting people indoors is what we need to do to save lives,” she said. “We have to do better and move quicker to get people into vacant motels and hotels.”

Even Julián Castro, a former presidential candidate and Secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development who weighed in on the City of Las Vegas’ previous actions on homelessness, called for permanent housing.

In an interview with The Nevada Independent, Sisolak said he was exploring all options for offering shelter for those living on the streets including using hotels or retrofitting vacant buildings.

When asked by Nevada Current to expand on his statements or what role Jim Murren, former MGM Resorts chairman who’s heading the governor’s task force, is playing to help those options manifest, the office didn’t respond.

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones said the County was working on securing contracts to use older apartment complexes as shelter. But the County wasn’t able to provide additional details at the time of publication. 

When asked Monday if the City of Las Vegas is considering using hotel rooms to shelter some living on the street, city spokesperson Jace Radke responded, “we will continue to evaluate the needs of the homeless population as we move forward.” 

“When it comes to the coronavirus, cities around the world are responding to an ever-changing situation,” Radke replied. “This means that we will continue to look at options to ensure the safety of our population, especially those most at risk. I cannot predict or speculate as to what options might be considered in the future.”

Farha said governments have always had a problem responding to homelessness. “The pandemic is just exposing the ugly side,” she added. 

In Southern Nevada, homeless advocates have long demanded creation of affordable housing and stable shelter options to contend with more than 60 percent of its homeless population that is unsheltered at any time. 

Those already scarce options decreased last week after a client at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada tested positive for COVID-19, and the facility was forced to close its more than 500-bed dorm room, leaving people without a place to stay. 

The city, Radke explained, initially tried to expand sleeping capacity at the open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center — the man who tested positive also visited the Courtyard — but couldn’t “adequately follow social distancing guidelines.”

Enter Cashman Field. 

White lines were painted on the parking lot of the facility to encourage social distancing. However, it lacked enough mats or bedding. Instead, there was cold asphalt available for the night. 

“Initially, padded carpeting was provided but it couldn’t be adequately sanitized each day,” Radke said. “We don’t have enough mats to accommodate everyone. We are trying to get more but have been unsuccessful so far. We’ll continue to provide this temporary respite, while practicing necessary social distancing, for anyone who is suffering from homelessness.”

However, it’s not the mats that Farha is concerned about. 

“Painting squares on pavement is obviously contrary to human rights in the best of times, let alone in a pandemic,” Farha countered. “Human rights don’t come and go in a crisis.”

Even if Catholic Charities reopens, Farha added that shelters are often overcrowded and don’t provide enough space to social distance, which could potentially provide conditions for the virus to spread. 

Homeless right groups are demanding better accommodations be considered, pointing to what has already been done across the country. 

“In New Orleans, they took a 200-person encampment on buses and brought them to The Hilton,” Tars said. “If there is a will, there’s a way.”

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated $100 million of emergency funding to go directly to local governments for shelter support and emergency housing to address COVID-19 among the homeless population and another $50 million to purchase travel trailers and lease hotel rooms.

While saying that sheltering people inside hotels is a more humane solution, Farha noted it’s also a critical part of a public health response. If people have a place to self-quarantine, they can’t contract or spread the virus.  

However, in situations where hotels are used it requires businesses to sign off on the idea. Tars is worried stereotypes and misconceptions of homelessness will prevent this option from happening. “Instead, they’re spending time painting lines on a parking lot,” he said. 

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Michael Lyle
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.