LV blocks off homeless encampment despite scant housing alternatives

City’s actions run counter to CDC guidance

By: - October 2, 2020 7:07 am

Barricade set up at a homeless encampment by the City of Las Vegas. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

After the City of Las Vegas recently erected a gate blocking people from entering a homeless encampment and posted trespassing signs, homeless advocates and legal groups worry people living in the encampment will be cleared out leaving many without a safe place to go or with tickets they can’t afford to pay.

“Learning about the barriers going up forces us to move forward with other actions that could prevent this from continuing,” said Sherrie Royster, the legal director with the ACLU of Nevada. “We are moving quickly to determine what actions we need to take over the next few days, and this would certainly include actions within the court.”

With the lack of available shelter options for people experiencing homelessness during a health pandemic, encampments have grown throughout the downtown homeless corridor, often deemed the Corridor of Hope by elected officials. 

Over the summer, advocates gathered outside one encampment near the Las Vegas Wash — an area with mixed owners including the City of Las Vegas, the City of North Las Vegas and the Nevada Department of Transportation — because they had reason to believe a raid would happen that would displace those living there.

The raid didn’t happen at that time. 

When asked if the city planned to bring in law enforcement to clear out the camp, city spokesman Jace Radke directed the question to North Las Vegas.

A North Las Vegas spokesman said he wasn’t aware of plans to clear the encampment. 

Though the encampment is in three jurisdictions, it was the City of Las Vegas that constructed the gate and said it did so “along its portion of the area.” 

“It was placed along with (trespassing) signage because of the ongoing activities in this portion of the right of way that result in public health, safety and welfare concerns,” Radke said in an email. “This channel is dangerous as it provides for significant storm flow drainage in the Las Vegas valley and protects the I-15 Highway infrastructure improvements from storm related damages.”

Radke said the gate cost about $1,000 and alluded to a more permanent structure. 

“This is a temporary setup for which we used existing materials that will be reused again when they are removed and replaced with the permanent improvements, so there were no appreciable material costs,” he said.

At the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how to respond to unsheltered populations saying, “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

“CDC guidance has been revised a number of times but the core message is encampments should not be removed unless individual rooms can be provided,” said Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Homeless Law Center. If rooms can’t be provided “camps should be provided with basic sanitation as well a period where people aren’t going to be evicted. That has not changed. It is still current.”

everybody makes mistakes
Sign erected by City of Las Vegas. (Courtesy photo)

The City of Las Vegas began posting trespassing notices in September (misspelled as trepassing) stating the city intends to “clear, clean and close” the encampment in 30 days. 

When asked about posting the signs, Radke said the city needed to carry out “fencing repairs and security measures.” 

The ACLU reached out to Bryan Scott, the city attorney with the City of Las Vegas, on Sept. 18, trying to figure out what spurred the need to move forward with repairs and clearing the area.

“Did something take place that makes this unsafe now and where is this coming from?” Royster inquired. “From (Scott’s) email it doesn’t seem like there was any incident that changed the dynamics that had been in place prior to the notice. I’m not sure who told them to do it or what made them decide to do it.”

When first asked about the encampment, NDOT spokesman Ryan McInerney said there were plans to clean the area because it presented a safety risk that included “bodily waste, debris and intravenous drug paraphernalia accumulating inside drainage channels that feed into the Las Vegas Wash.” 

In a follow-up email shortly after, he said the tentative cleaning was canceled and didn’t answer subsequent questions seeking an explanation for the cancellation.

At the request of the city attorney, Royster was referred to the director of maintenance and operation with the City of Las Vegas. “I’ve reached out twice and he is yet to respond,” she said. 

Local homeless groups are also worried about the effect of the gate. 

“The construction of this gate is concerning because it prevents people staying there from leaving the area safely with the belongings they rely on for survival, especially people who are disabled and elderly,” said Emily Paulsen, the executive director with the Nevada Homeless Alliance. “This action is counter to the public health recommendations of the CDC and our local Health District concerning encampments.” 

Tars fears that with trespassing notices and a physical barrier, some who have been sleeping in the encampment for months won’t have a chance to get their belongings and risk getting cited and jailed if they attempt to retrieve items.

The concern is not without merit. 

Earlier in 2020, a regional working group, which includes the City of Las Vegas and the City of North Las Vegas, showed 5,200, or 15 percent of the total bookings in the jail, for 2019 were from people identified as homeless. 

As previously reported by the Nevada Current, data from the City Jail showed bookings included:

  • 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.

Advocates have argued unnecessary fines and fees or jail time for homeless-related crimes could further prevent those who are unsheltered from exiting homelessness. 

When asked what efforts the city is taking to ensure those living on the streets aren’t being jailed because they couldn’t pay a trespassing citation, Radke pointed to the city’s specialty courts. 

He also said the city would help people get their belongings. 

The city of Las Vegas always works with individuals experiencing homelessness to retrieve their belongings, and we of course have our outreach teams offering them services and facilities where they can safely stay,Radke said. 

The City’s response to those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic has made international headlines and sparked outrage. After a positive Covid case was confirmed at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada in March causing the 500-bed shelter to be shut down, people were directed to a parking lot at Cashman Center where they slept on the pavement. 

Similarly, many advocates and legal groups are concerned the city is again taking measures they say hurt more than help.

The city’s mental barrier against providing people they deem undeserving with housing makes them take this objectively absurd approach where they will spend thousands of dollars to erect fences and barriers and then have to use threat of arrest to get people out, costing more thousands of dollars, rather than simply going to the residents, offering them a hotel voucher, and they’d all leave peacefully,” Tars said. 

Radke said the city’s Multi-agency Outreach Resource Engagement, or MORE, team, which conducts homeless outreach, is providing assistance to people in the encampments to help them get housed. 

“Certainly the city does offer assistance to those experiencing homelessness through the MORE Teams and the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center,” Radke said. 

But directing them to the Courtyard, which is open-air and offers sleeping accommodations in close quarters, has also been long controversial. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes district courts in Nevada, ruled in 2018 in Martin v Boise that cities can’t punish people for sleeping on the streets if there were no reasonable shelter alternatives available.

“For me right now, the way the Martin (court) decision works together with the CDC guidance is that the alternative that you have to offer is one that’s adequate and appropriate for the individual,” Tars said. “Martin makes that clear. Right now, no indoor or outdoor congregate option is appropriate for any individual. That’s what the CDC’s guidance says. Therefore, evictions of encampments should only be done if the city is offering individual rooms.”

The Courtyard, Tars said, isn’t a suitable alternative outlined by the Martin ruling. 

“(The Courtyard) is not a bad thing to have,” he said. “It just cant be the only thing the city is offering as an alternative for purposes for thinking they are complying with (the court ruling). Martin is fairly explicit about saying indoor beds, and a mat in a gravel courtyard is not an indoor bed.” 

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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.