Inside a homeless encampment across the street from James Gay Park near Owens Avenue, residents are reluctantly beginning to gather up belongings and prepare their search for a new place to sleep.
Moving on their own accord is better than potentially facing a trespassing charge or dealing with another early-morning raid that could sweep away their belongings.
Though this isn’t the first time many have been forced out of an encampment and struggled to secure a new place to lay their heads for the night, many hoped things in the new encampment would be different.
Walter Jones, who owns the vacant property, told those displaced from the Nov. 30 encampment removal, carried out by the City of Las Vegas, the City of North Las Vegas and the Nevada Department of Transportation, that they could stay there.
“I got a phone call saying they were laying in front of my property,” Jones said. “I thought, ‘it’s close to the holidays and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt out here.’ So I said, ‘I’ll let you guys stay on my property, just keep it clean. No drugs. No alcohol.’ They were doing that. Next thing I know, I’m getting a phone call.”
In December, Jones received a nuisance notice from the City of Las Vegas alleging code violations for allowing people to camp there. The notice required the encampment to be cleared out.
“Are you going to tell me who can lay on my property?” Jones thought when he heard from the city and saw the violation. “Then the next thing they do is send me a certified letter saying if you don’t get them off the property we’re going to charge you $1,000 a day.”
In a statement, the City of Las Vegas said since it’s in a neighborhood, vacant property can’t be used for camping.
“We heard from concerned residents and neighbors today at the City Council meeting regarding the camp and the public safety issues it poses,” said city spokesman Jace Radke in an email. “The camp is deemed an imminent hazard due to a lack of sanitary conditions, fires, and the increased possibility of transmission of COVID-19 and other illnesses amongst individuals who are not living in sanitary conditions and are without running water.”
Radke said the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the Southern Nevada Health District have also been involved with “relocating the camp.” He added the Multi-agency Outreach Resource Engagement, or MORE, team, which includes law enforcement and conducts homeless outreach, has been to the site offering services.
Jones heard law enforcement and the City might clear out the encampment as soon as Thursday.
In the meantime, residents said police officers are already driving by multiple mornings blasting over the loudspeaker that people need to move or face citation and arrest for trespassing.
Daniel Ahmed, who has camped on the property for more than a month after being displaced from the Las Vegas Wash encampment, said the anxiety doesn’t help with sleeping.
“I would be asleep, but every time a car would go by my tent I would pop up to make sure it was safe to stay and keep sleeping,” he said. “They’ve been driving up and down the street making an announcement.”
Displaced, with no good options
About 45 people have set up tents and made enclosures on the private property, and the majority were previously living in the encampment officials razed in November near Interstate 15 and Owens next to the Las Vegas Wash.
After trespassing signs began to pop up in the Las Vegas Wash encampment in September, residents, civil rights groups and organizers worried a raid was imminent. However, some said behind-the-scenes conversations with officials led them to believe any action might be postponed.
Then early the morning of Nov. 30, it was all swept away without warning.
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.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned against removing encampments unless there is non congregate and individual indoor rooms available.
In the wake of their decision, people like Ahmad, who is experiencing his third and so far longest stint with homelessness, were displaced.
Prior to the wash encampment, Ahmad slept in various spots including the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, an open-air facility that provides space to sleep on the ground on mats.
But he didn’t think the sleeping mats were properly cleaned and also worried about safety.
“Sometimes, we’re told by security guards what we can’t do,” he said. “But when you tell other people the rules, they try to fight you.”
He also argued many of the rules would change at random and policies, like how to store belongings and when people could access them, were too confusing.
Instead, he decided to live in an encampment where he could set up his own space not so close to other people, something necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“It’s also a freedom issue,” he said. “You can come and go as you please. Down there (at the Courtyard), you’re told what to do everyday.”
During the summer, organizations such as Food Not Bombs began building huts for people at the Las Vegas Wash encampment. It raised $16,000 to construct 25 units for encampment residents, all which were destroyed when the encampment was.
“Getting the hut meant I was one more step toward getting into a place,” Ahmad said.
After the November raid, he tried to move into another encampment in North Las Vegas, but without items to keep warm he quickly moved on.
He then tried his luck at the shelters, which has limited space and isn’t running at full capacity because of Covid.
“I went to Catholic Charities (of Southern Nevada) for two nights and Salvation Army for three nights,” Ahmad said.
Beds at shelters are on a first-come, first-served basis.
Finally, he heard the property owner was allowing people to camp on the property near James Gay Park. Ahmad set up a tent, which he was able to get from the nonprofit Care Complex, and has been living on the property since early December.
Now, Ahmad and other encampment residents aren’t sure where they’ll go next. His goal is to set up in a group, which allows them to keep their belongings in one spot so one person can watch over them while the others go out to get services, seek work or tend to other needs.
“I think I got frostbite on my toes so I need to go see a doctor,” he said. “But it’s hard to go anywhere when you have to take your stuff with you.”
In addition to his correspondence with the City, Jones said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department encouraged him to direct those on his property to homeless outreach organizations.
But he wonders if those alternatives are a better option.
“You want to get mad at me, but when the city went and put them on the asphalt at Cashman Field, that was a big hooray?” Jones asked.
When Covid first swept through Southern Nevada and a positive case at Catholic Charities caused the 500-bed shelter to shut down, the City of Las Vegas directed people to Cashman Field where they slept on the parking lot pavement. Photos of the response sparked international outrage.
Jones noted that people are still sleeping in tents on the sidewalks along Las Vegas Boulevard outside of Catholic Charities and the Courtyard.
“I thought they were living inside of a building,” he said. “No. They are living outside in tents. Why are they on top of me when at least they are on soft dirt in a tent?”
After the destruction of the encampment near the Las Vegas Wash, community groups asked elected officials in early December to not only apologize for their actions, but take steps to rectify their actions, including designating land for people to camp.
However, they say they still haven’t received a response.
“One day I might hit the lottery and go buy a bunch of land, let them go out there and farm and live their lives,” Jones said.