Those who seek aid for the homeless, along with several homeless themselves, wearing T-shirts provided by the city, protested a city-borne proposal Wednesday that they say will criminalize street encampments.
But Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who told State of Nevada she's behind the proposal, said it is not meant to punish but to help those in need.
“What we’re trying to do… is to encourage people to seek the many opportunities that we offer to break the cycle of homelessness to come into our courtyard and the resources of other nonprofit social services to help them,” she said.
Mayor Goodman explained that under the proposal, law enforcement will be able to approach people who have camped on the street in certain areas of the city and ask if they want to go to the city's homeless services courtyard for help.
"And if they refuse, that is when the choice being theirs - open choice - they will be ticketed and could even be put in detention," she said - if shelter beds are available.
She said the citation could range in price from $5 to $1,000 depending on the infraction. Goodman said the city doesn't want to ticket people but it does want to give people a choice to get help.
"These are people who have issues and we certainly don't want to do anything punitive or cause problems for them more than they already have we want to help them," she said. "But at some point, they have to make a choice."
The mayor said of the 100 homeless people city social services approached about getting help, only two agreed. She noted that public money is going to pay for showers, port-a-potties and other services for people living on the street.
Goodman is also suggesting turning a former state prison in Jean, which is 30 miles south of Las Vegas, into a facility for people with severe mental illnesses, which she says is one of the biggest problems among the homeless population.
Homelessness is on the rise around the country, but especially in the Southwest. Some attribute the increase to the fast-rising cost of housing and lack of affordable housing.
The Nevada Homeless Alliance, which is urging the city to abandon the idea, has said shelters in downtown Las Vegas are typically near maximum capacity.
That is not the only advocacy group opposed to the mayor's ideas. Sherrie Royster is the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada. She said the city's proposal could be a violation of a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the 8th Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property.
"The mayor is proposing that homeless people be criminalized for something they can not help," Royster said, "This has been something that has been discussed and the answer is not to criminalize homeless people by creating an ordinance that does not give them alternative options."
Royster said the city's options are not really answers at all. She also pointed out that there are an estimated 6,000 homeless in Southern Nevada but only 2,000 shelter beds available.
In addition to the numbers, Royster said there are so many moving parts in the proposal that it is really unworkable. For instance, the shelters have to tell Las Vegas Metro Police if beds are full and based on that information an officer can ticket someone.
Royster also disagreed with the mayor's proposal to turn the prison in Jean into a care facility for people with mental illnesses. She said because the facility is so far away and many of the people who would end up there have no way to get back or a way to see family and friends it would end up being a de facto commitment facility.
"It's almost as if homelessness is being seen as an eyesore," she said, "And we want to move them 30 miles away. Out of the sight of everyone else and basically, commit them there."
Royster said addressing the problem of mental health is important but putting people out at Jean is not what the solution looks like.
Caridad is another nonprofit that is opposed to the city's plan. It was part of the protest in front of city hall. Merideth Densford Spriggs is the charity's chief kindness officer.
She took issue with several things the mayor said about the homeless but especially her comments about how many people accept help when city employees reach out.
"I've been in homeless services for ten years, in street outreach specifically, so I've talked to thousands upon thousands of homeless and I've never, ever encountered a single homeless person that A) wanted to be homeless and B) didn't want assistance," she said, "I'm baffled by that number that she quoted."
Densford Spriggs said the new proposal will do little to address the underlying problems of homelessness.
"You can't legislate away homelessness or poverty. Other cities have tried and they've failed," she said.
She said most homeless people have income from a job, social security or disability payments but they're just unable to find a place to live with the income they have.
In addition, Densford Spriggs said many homeless people can't line up to get into a shelter at 4 p.m. because they are working. Instead of losing their jobs, they lose their spot at a shelter.
She pointed to a program in Austin, Texas that provides tiny affordable homes to homeless people. The program is mostly privately funded. She believes that is where nonprofits like hers are falling short.
"As providers, we have come together and we need to be more proactive ,and I am saying this myself included in this, as far as, our messaging to the public," she said, "We need to do a better public ask to put more private money into affordable housing and into ending homeless."
Former city council Bob Coffin agreed. He called into State of Nevada to give his opinion. He believes the mayor's proposal is a starting point but the real issue is funding.
"We robbing money from all our other budgets to take care of this problem," he said. Coffin said the city tried to get help from the Legislature with a bill, "which would have provided... enough money to take care of it," but that bill didn't get passed.
Coffin believes it is a public safety problem that needs to be addressed.
Carolyn Goodman, mayor, city of Las Vegas; Merideth Densford Spriggs, Caridad; Sherrie Royster, Legal Director, ACLU of Nevada
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