Local governments taken to task for razing encampment

Kady Johnson, who was displaced after the homeless encampment was destroyed, speaks out at City Hall. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

After living in the homeless encampment near the Las Vegas Wash for about eight months, Kady Johnson for the first time in a while doesn’t know where to go.

Standing outside the Las Vegas City Hall Saturday, she described to a crowd of about 100, including many other residents of the encampment, about the aftermath of the area being demolished after the City of Las Vegas, the City of North Las Vegas and the Nevada Department of Transportation cleared out the encampment Nov. 30.

“On Monday they took our home away,” she said. “We had one place we felt safe.”

The land, which was located near Interstate 15 and Owens and portioned among all three jurisdictions, was home to more than 50 people. 

Some of its residents, along with organizations that built huts for people, gathered Saturday to demand elected officials not only give a public apology for its destruction, but to provide compensation for all that was lost and take actions to fix structural issues that cause homelessness.  

Each jurisdiction cited health and safety concerns, as well as the need to make repairs to the Las Vegas Wash, as the reason for razing the encampment. The City of North Las Vegas also referenced “two battery with a deadly weapon incidents, which were connected to the homeless camp” as another reason it decided to act. 

Clearing out encampments goes against guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.”

Even without the CDC’s warning, groups Saturday said the actions taken were wrong and cruel. 

“We are watching them trying to defend the indefensible and watching them try to justify what they did,” said Joey Lankowski, who does homeless outreach with Food Not Bombs, one of the groups that had provided huts in the encampment. “We are forcing them to explain themselves and they look terrible.”

Lankowski and others speaking Saturday said the encampment, and the structures that were built, were responses to larger systemic problems government agencies have failed to acknowledge, such as adequate housing or access to resources needed to exit homelessess.  

“They will close a park because there are too many homeless people, like Circle Park or James Gay Park, robbing the community and these folks of public restrooms,” Lankowski said. “Then they’ll complain they are going to the bathroom in public. Just because you closed a bathroom doesn’t mean folks are going to stop going to the bathroom. Where are they supposed to go?” 

The actions and policies of government agencies “create these problems,” he said.

Displacing people from the encampment comes as temperatures continue to drop and shelter space, already at limited capacity because of Covid, is scarce. At the encampments, people were able to store clothes, blankets and other items to keep safe and warm.

“When you’re taking away shelter and kicking people out in the cold, that is violence,” he added. “It’s putting people’s lives in danger. People are colder than they’ve ever been since this winter started. They don’t have their huts. They don’t have their blankets. They don’t have their sleeping bags.”

‘It felt like home’

Groups created huts for those living in an encampment near the Las Vegas Wash. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

“You wake up from a deep sleep and all you hear is sirens,” Johnson said thinking back on Monday morning. “Did I know that one day this would probably happen? Yes. But you still don’t expect it. They kept stopping the raids so we thought it was OK. They caught us with our pants down.”

She and her partner moved to Las Vegas about two years ago from Wisconsin when a family member promised a job was lined up and they would have a place to stay. 

“She lied,” Johnson said. “She paid for a room for a couple nights.”

For a year, the couple was living off money left to them after another family member died while they tried to find jobs. 

“We were trying, but there was no luck,” she said. “Now with Covid, trying to get a job is harder. It’s tough, but we survive. All we wanted was a place to call ours where we won’t be bugged.”

After living on the streets for a few months, Johnson moved into the encampment in March. She was one of the 25 people who was able to get a hut about three months ago. 

“The hut meant I had space and in case the rainy season did come, we could stay in the hut,” she said. “Because of how small they are, I was using it for food and clothes storage while sleeping in a tent with our cat. It was roomy. It was a six-man tent with LED lights. We had chairs. I had a carpet. It was nice. It felt like home.”

But Monday’s raid means she not only lost a sense of security from having a stationary place, she lost all the things she had since accumulated. 

“We had little time to pack what we could and get out before they bulldozed and took all of our stuff,” she said. “They took it all. I can’t get off the streets if they keep tearing down and taking away from us. How are we supposed to live and survive if the city keeps doing this to us? It’s got to stop. Give us a place we can be us and live and survive. Don’t keep dispersing us all over and arresting us for trying to sleep where we have to.”

One by one, residents of the encampment described similar experiences during Saturday’s rally. 

They say the destruction of the huts and demolishing of the area robbed them of important documents they needed in attempts to get off the streets. But many also described losing photos of family members and mementos from their pasts, all which are irreplaceable. 

“It’s not about the financial stuff, because I’m a hustler and can go get that stuff,” one man said. “It’s my father’s watch, who is deceased. It’s my mother’s last picture. My birth certificate. Who answers for that?”

Organizers are asking the cities not only to offer compensation for the items those living in the encampment lost but to also replenish funds the groups used to create the huts and provide resources. 

They also want land to create “a fully self-sustaining community” for those living on the streets, which isn’t an unheard of concept.

A few cities around the country, including Oakland and San Clemente, Calif., have created designated campsites for those living on the streets. 

But some solutions and proposals take time. 

Many are still displaced following the removal and fear attempts to sleep other places will result in citations or arrest. Since Nov. 2019, the City of Las Vegas has passed two ordinances restricting camping and sleeping on city sidewalks

“We are traveling from place to place at night trying to find a good spot to stay,” Johnson said. “But we don’t want to get harassed by cops so where do we go?” 

‘What are they doing with the Covid money?’

Along with those sharing stories, organizers brought with them an example of the structures they’ve been building.

For the last few months, groups including Food Not Bombs and the Sidewalk Project raised $16,000 to construct 25 huts for people living at the encampment. 

Those groups, along with the ACLU of Nevada, have also been trying to work with officials to stop potential raids of the encampment.

Lankowski said they asked city officials to provide sanitation and trash removal inside the encampment, saying better hygiene could help people better protect against Covid, but also alleviate the health concerns government agencies themselves would cite when they destroyed the encampment.

“For them to say this was over a public health concern — you’re creating a public health concern by dispersing folks during a pandemic,” he said. 

In an email, the Southern Nevada Health District said it had been providing Covid testing in the encampment, but had not visited since October. When asked if there had been any positive Covid cases, it said it couldn’t provide location-specific results.

Lankowski said it would have been cheaper to provide regular maintenance to the encampment rather than to bulldoze the entire place. 

Organizers also admonished the City of Las Vegas for its use of coronavirus relief funds. During an October legislative hearing on coronavirus relief aid, lawmakers scrutinized the city’s decisions to allocate $105 million of the $119 million it received toward public safety payroll. 

“What are they doing with all that Covid money?” Lankowski asked. “They took that Covid money and they paid themselves with it.”

Among other asks Saturday, groups called on officials to repeal laws that specifically criminalize poverty and those experiencing homelessness, such as camping bans and vagrancy laws. Critics of these laws have noted citations and arrests hinder people from exiting homelessness. 

“Drop all charges against members of our community related to homelessness,” Lankowski said. “Things like trespassing, possession of a shopping cart or remaining in a park after hours.”

Earlier this year, officials and service providers were told 15 percent of those incarcerated at the City of Las Vegas jail in 2019 were homeless. 

The Nevada Current reported 153 people were thrown in jail last year for possessing a shopping cart and 204 people were arrested and incarcerated for remaining in a park after hours.

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.