Ajay was asleep Monday morning when a police officer burst through his hut and announced he had five minutes to clear out or be arrested for trespassing.
At 6 a.m., he was still too groggy to fully comprehend what was going on, and the prospect of facing 40 degree weather didn’t help.
“I got up, but I wasn’t moving fast until I saw there were a lot of police and they weren’t just doing this to me,” said Ajay, who only provided his first name. “They said they would take all of us to jail if we didn’t leave fast enough.”
With limited shelter options during the health pandemic, Ajay was among the many residents hunkering down inside a homeless encampment near the Las Vegas Wash, some who have been living and social distancing from Covid in huts built by the nonprofit Food Not Bombs.
Early Monday morning, the encampment, on land owned by the City of Las Vegas, the City of North Las Vegas and the Nevada Department of Transportation, was cleared out, its residents were displaced and the structures were demolished.
The move goes against guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says “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 the same since March, that people living in encampments should not be evicted from those encampments unless whoever is evicting them is offering them individual hotel rooms, because we know Covid spreads quickly in congregate shelters,” said Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Homeless Law Center.
“A congregate shelter option is not a safe option,” Tars said. “Evicting people to nowhere with no other alternative also spreads Covid. If there’s only one safe way to do this in the context of the pandemic, either leave people there (in encampments) and provide them with the sanitation services they need or you provide them with individual rooms, whether that’s hotel rooms or dorm rooms.”
Though all three agencies were present Monday, Jace Radke, a spokesman for the City of Las Vegas, said “the city of Las Vegas did not plan today’s clean up with other jurisdictions.” He noted the majority of the structures cleared out were in North Las Vegas.
However, Nevada Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Illia said the Nov. 30 date “was a joint decision reached by municipal and community stakeholders.”
Each jurisdiction has cited a variety of concerns about the encampment, including the need to conduct repairs and safety and health issues.
“Conditions in the encampment have deteriorated to the point that a dangerous accumulation of trash, debris and human waste collected in the drainage channel, and there has been violent crime, medical emergencies and fires, posing a significant threat to the safety of those staying there and to the surrounding homes and businesses,” North Las Vegas spokeswoman Sandy Lopez said in an email. “In an effort to maintain safe conditions for everyone, a cleanup was performed today by all of the partners involved, including the City of Las Vegas and Metro.”
Radke said notices had been posted for months, though none acknowledged the encampment removal would take place Nov. 30.
“The city did have a crew out this morning in the city of Las Vegas portion of the right-of-way cleaning that area and making repairs to fencing.” he said. “The area has quickly become unsanitary and a public health concern.”
The two structures on Las Vegas’ land, he added, were hazardous and “were not permitted and had not passed building inspections” so people wouldn’t be able to retrieve left behind items.
When asked, neither jurisdiction said how the CDC’s guidelines, or Nevada’s rising Covid positivity rate, factored into the decision to clear out the area.
Illia said NDOT has suspended most of its “major homeless encampment clean-up activities” but “performed this particular clean-up in order to address significant and growing public health and safety concerns.”
Scant help, inadequate resources
“Everyone in Nevada is struggling with this recent Covid surge and this pandemic is not over, but if you look at the way many of our jurisdictions are approaching unsheltered populations you would think the pandemic was over,” said Wesley Juhl, a spokesman for the ACLU of Nevada.
Tars called the move especially cruel considering temperatures are dropping as winter approaches and it’s now holiday season.
“All the time and resources they spent cleaning out the encampment, if they had put that time into figuring out what resources they had available in the community, what hotels are desperate for business right now because travel is way down, then they could have come out of this with an outcome that is better and safer for everybody,” he added. “Instead, they chose not to do that.”
Lopez said North Las Vegas had visited the site to “connect those experiencing homelessness with social services, medical care and available beds at the nearby shelters.”
Radke said in addition to the maintenance crew, the Multi-agency Outreach Resource Engagement, or MORE, team, which includes law enforcement and conducts homeless outreach, was out assisting people in the encampment.
He added that “three individuals agreed to talk to the MORE Team case managers” and two, who had been on the Homeless Management Information System housing queue, “were taken out of homelessness.”
As he left the encampment Monday morning, Ajay said he had not been approached by outreach teams.
Just law enforcement.
Across the street from the wash near James Gay Park, Ajay and others who lived in the encampment gathered shortly after they were cleared out to assess the belongings they were able to collect.
“They didn’t even give us an hour. It was more like five minutes,” he said.
Hastily packed shopping carts now overflowed with their belongings: blankets, sleeping bags, clothes, luggage.
In the rush to leave, Ajay left his phone and charger — an invaluable, and not easily replaced, resource for those trying to access social services, get into housing or find employment.
He was told if he tried to retrieve them he would be arrested.
“I was just starting to get on my feet and started applying for jobs when I got my hut,” he said. “I had a book full of important numbers. It’s probably somewhere in the gutter now.”
Some discussed setting up tents or sleeping bags along the sidewalks, well aware it could lead to their arrest. The City of Las Vegas passed two ordinances in the last year restricting camping and sleeping on city sidewalks.
But with limited options for shelter, the residents didn’t see any other choice.
Radke pointed to the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center as one option. But the facility is open-air and offers sleeping accommodations in close quarters, which makes social distancing impossible.
The ACLU has unsuccessfully been trying to meet with the City of Las Vegas since September when trespassing notices were posted threatening to “clear, clean and close” the encampment in 30 days.
“We’ve tried time and time again to explain to the city their approach is not right and we’re not seeing them being receptive,” Juhl said.
Civil rights groups and social service providers view the encampment removal as the latest attempt to criminalize homelessness rather than invest in housing and other needed services that help people exit homelessness.
“I think the problem is they’re trying to take a carrot and stick approach and get people into services,” Juhl added. “The greater problem is the lack of services. We can’t arrest our way out of these problems. We need to invest in permanent supportive housing and other housing first initiatives and get people off the streets.”