Monday November 30, officials bulldozed an encampment that houseless people had been living in along a wash near Lake Mead Boulevard and Losee Road.
The cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, as well as the Department of Transportation, cited unsafe conditions at the camp. The three public entities share jurisdiction of the area.
But advocates for the people living in the camp say the government's action was not only heartless, but it actually made the situation much worse by displacing people who have nowhere else to go -- and went against CDC pandemic guidelines.
Joey Lankowski is with Food Not Bombs Las Vegas. His organization helped the people living in the encampment, at first, by bringing in tents but then later they built tiny homes where they could live, keep their belongings and stay isolated from others to avoid spreading COVID-19.
"We ended up building 26 tiny homes for folks at that encampment and really it is an ideal location because it's 'out of sight, out of mind,'" he said.
Lankowski said the city of Las Vegas doesn't want people camping downtown and Clark County doesn't want them sleeping on the Strip. So, the area, which has been used by homeless people for a long time, is a good place to be.
In addition, there is a natural spring that allows people to get fresh water. Lankowski and his group envisioned a self-sustaining community at the encampment.
They had a plan to put solar panels on the tiny huts for power, start gardens for free food, install compostable toilets for waste management and divert the spring for more water.
"Free food, free water, free energy, free housing," he said, "It really was going to be something beautiful and completely self-sufficient, self-sustaining and I think that's what really scared the government."
Crowdsourcing and donations from the community paid for the huts. Food Not Bombs worked with other partners in the community to create the huts and bringing food, hygiene kits and other necessities to people living in the area, Lankowski said.
According to Lankowski, this was not the first time the cities had tried to destroy the camp. He said in times past his group and others had managed to keep it from being raided.
At one point, dumpsters were placed at the site so people living there wouldn't throw their trash into the nearby wash. Lankowski said when the dumpsters stopped being emptied it was a sign that a raid was coming.
"That's how we knew a raid was coming, even before they told the residents, is that they would stop servicing the dumpsters and then trash would accumulate and then they could point to the trash and say, 'See, this is why we had to come in,'" he said, "It was a completely state-created problem and such an easy fix, just do your job - just service the dumpsters."
Lankowski also said that he was told by North Las Vegas officials that they wanted to work with Food Not Bombs, Nevada Homeless Alliance and other nonprofits to move the encampment, not destroy it.
"The city official said we would have a roundtable discussion, where voices of the unhoused can be heard," he said, "Outreach groups can be at the table and other service providers to come up with a solution instead of just kicking them out."
He said the call included a representative with the CDC because the agency has recommended people in encampments like the one that was raided stay put to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
However, he said that discussion didn't happen and the campsite was destroyed.
Lankowski noted it wasn't just the donated huts that were destroyed but people's personal belongings, heirlooms, and personal documents needed to get off the street.
"Imagine trying to get off the streets all these hoops you have to jump through and you're so proud of yourself that you're able to get these documents. You're finally ready to get help and then all of it gets thrown away," he said, "That sense of helplessness and hopelessness is renewed and that's what I saw that day."
While homeless advocates say the raid was morally wrong, it may not be entirely illegal. Sarah Hawkins is the president of Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
She said there are a lot of legal layers to what cities and counties can do in cases like this. They are allowed to remove items from public lands but destroying personal items is not allowed.
"There is nothing that allows the government to destroy," she said, "It would have legal to remove but not to destroy."
The other question surrounding the case is whether the people were trespassing. To be charged with trespassing, Hawkins said there needs to be a notification.
However, there are questions about whether the notification that was posted was clear enough.
"From my perspective, we can call somebody a trespasser if there is adequate notice, but here, the question of notice appears unresolved," she said,
Hawkins said for people to get compensation for the items and documents they lost in the destruction of the encampment a civil lawsuit would have to be filed and suggested that local attorneys concerned about this issue contact Food Not Bombs about the case.
Lankowski believes the overarching issue is not one of what is legal and what is not: "Legality does not equal morality," he said, "Unfortunately, what these folks were doing is technically illegal - you're trespassing. But destroying the huts is technically not illegal. Was it wrong? Yes. Is trying to survive at the encampment wrong? No."
Emily Paulsen, with the Nevada Homeless Alliance, told KNPR's State of Nevada that the raid at the homeless encampment is just one piece of a broader problem in Southern Nevada.
"Year after year, we continue to see a majority of the people who are homeless in our community unsheltered and that's because we don't have adequate shelter and housing resources," she said.
Paulsen said Southern Nevada can only shelter about 30 percent of the people who are homeless on any given night, and the valley has one of the highest rates of unsheltered in the country.
There has been progress in helping find temporary housing for people in recent months, she said, but it is nowhere near what is actually needed. To make matters worse, many homeless advocates believe there will be even more homeless people in the coming months.
"We anticipate that we will see a tremendous surge in the number of people who will fall into homelessness in our community in the coming months as the CDC eviction moratorium expires and as federal unemployment benefits expire," Paulsen said.
She said it is a scary time for a lot of people, and the effort by Food Not Bombs to provide isolated living spaces for people was important. Besides the huts, they made sure there were port-a-potties and handwashing sinks.
Paulsen said those huts and the facilities followed CDC recommendations to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"We're really concerned about what happened last week, about the safety of individuals that were displaced, and we're concerned about our community as a whole, and this continued response of local governments to ignore the CDC guidance and simply do the wrong thing," she said.
Paulsen said the number of homeless in encampments has been growing as shelters limit capacity, and people try to steer clear of crowded spaces.
For Lankowski and Paulsen, the answer is land.
"I think, giving land. I think that is something the city of North Las Vegas and the city of Las Vegas should commit to doing so that groups can help provide alternative housing," Paulsen said.
She said she knows of at least three organizations that have the resources ready right now to establish tiny houses for the homeless if they're given the land and permits to build.
Lankowski agreed that a piece of land would allow his group to help create the self-sustaining community they were hoping to create at Losee Road and Lake Mead Boulevard.
But that is really only the beginning of what he wants from the cities of North Las Vegas and Las Vegas.
"We need a public apology from both mayors - Mayor John J. Lee and Mayor Carolyn Goodman. [Las Vegas] Councilman Cedric Creer and [North Las Vegas] Councilman Scott Black and the head of NDOT must issue an apology," he said, "They need to make these people whole. They need to restore all community funds raised and repeal any laws that criminalize homelessness, drop charges against anyone with open cases for these types of crimes and they need to immediately end encampment demolitions and release all people currently in jail for simply being homeless."
KNPR News invited representatives from the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas and the Department of Transportation to join the discussion, but all three agencies said no one was available.
They did provide the following statements:
Nevada Department of Transportation:
NDOT’s top priority is the public safety of all Nevadans and visitors, while still facilitating relocation assistance and resources for displaced individuals.
The decision to pursue this abatement was intended to ensure the safety and welfare of both the homeless and surrounding community due to significant biohazard concerns, including bodily waste, debris and intravenous drug paraphernalia accumulating inside drainage channels that feed into the Las Vegas Wash.
Other concerns included potential pedestrian-vehicle hazards from crossing the interstate, walking alongside the shoulder and/or encamping within the Union Pacific Railroad corridor, as well as obstructed driver sightlines.
We will continue to work with government and community partners to ensure that any necessary clean-up efforts are conducted responsibly.
City of North Las Vegas statement:
The City of North Las Vegas maintains this right of way for NDOT, the property owner. Throughout the pandemic, we proactively visited the site several times per week to connect those experiencing homelessness with social services, medical care and available beds at the nearby shelters.
Conditions in the encampment 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.
In an effort to maintain safe conditions for everyone, a cleanup was performed last week by all of the partners involved, including the City of Las Vegas and Metro.
City of Las Vegas statement:
The structures in question were located north of Owens in the NDOT I-15 right-of-way storm channel easement. All the structures except two were located in North Las Vegas’ jurisdiction... The right-of-way crosses into both Las Vegas and North Las Vegas jurisdictions with the majority in [North Las Vegas.]
The city had a crew out Monday morning in the city of Las Vegas portion of the right-of-way cleaning that area and making repairs to fencing. The area has quickly become unsanitary and a public health concern.
The city crew arrived by 6 a.m. and notified anyone on the city portion of the right-of-way that a cleaning would occur. All individuals in the city of Las Vegas portion were directed to take their personal belongings with them and were allowed time to gather those items and depart prior to the start of the cleaning.
In addition, notices have been posted in the area for the last couple months noting that there is no trespassing on the property and a cleanup would occur. Additional notices were placed in the area 10 days ago.
In addition to our maintenance crew, we have also had members of the MORE Team out to assist any homeless individuals. The MORE Team encountered 21 people in the area Monday and three of the individuals accepted services.
Two of the three individuals who accepted services were immediately relocated to a transitional housing apartment. The city, of course, accepts anyone who needs help at our Courtyard Homeless Resource Center where we work to help people get healthy, housed and hired.
Sarah Hawkins, President, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice; Joey Lankowski, Food Not Bombs Las Vegas; Emily Paulsen, Nevada Homeless Alliance
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