As Nevada's unhoused population grows, some cities crack down on where to sleep
We’ve all encountered cost-of-living increases. Since the pandemic, everything has gotten more and more expensive: gasoline, food, childcare.
However, rent might have seen the most drastic increase. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, average rent in the Las Vegas Valley increased by $300.
So, what happens when you can’t pay? You’re evicted.
“For the first time in two years, we don’t have any type of moratorium or protection [against evictions],” said Michael Lyle, a reporter for Nevada Current who covers homelessness and the housing crisis.
Lyle adds that this lack of a safety net has real implications for Southern Nevada’s unhoused population, which has increased 16% over the past year, according to 2023’s Point in Time Count, conducted in January.
And with more people on the streets, both Las Vegas and Henderson now have anti-encampment laws. Sleeping or camping on public streets can net someone a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.
Merideth Spriggs, the chief kindness officer and founder of Caridad, a local homeless outreach organization, said these encampment ordinances ultimately disrupt aid efforts by nonprofits, and further hinder unhoused individuals’ ability to get off the streets.
“I’m not advocating for leaving these encampments,” Spriggs said. “But what you see is, yes, it disrupts the homeless — it’s throwing away all of their worldly possessions, so now they have no identifying documents, they might not have their medications, and you’re asking them to re-start over again. So how are they going to get a job with no ID? … It’s like this spiral. So, in essence, you make them more homeless.”
Yet encampment ordinances, despite being controversial, are also not uncommon throughout the U.S., as evidenced by an amicus curiae brief filed by Henderson, Las Vegas, and 13 other Western cities in September. In it, the cities request that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn two previous Ninth Circuit Court decisions that deemed similar anti-encampment laws unconstitutional.
The cities argue those rulings hurt their ability to address homelessness, and are hoping the Court provides “clarity and finality,” according to the city attorney for Las Vegas.
But Christopher Peterson, the legal director for ACLU of Nevada, disagrees.
“The reality is that the petitioner going up before the Supreme Court is asking for a complete overturn. The ruling from the [9th Circuit] Court is quite narrow,” he noted. “At the very least, if you’re going to criminalize sleeping in public, you need to make sure that people who are forced to sleep in public have some other option before you criminalize it. … What’s being asked for is to remove that bare minimum restriction, and giving these cities the full power to start throwing people in jail for sleeping.”
As it is, without more funding for nonprofits and housing projects, Lyle believes that the situation might get worse before it gets better.
“Nonprofits are triaging, essentially, our community and they only have so many dollars to go around,” he said. “And, so, we’re seeing that being stretched to the absolute max. And with that being stretched, more and more people are going to fall through.”
Homelessness in Southern Nevada, by the numbers:
- This year’s Point-in-Time (PIT) Count found 6,566 people staying in shelters or on the streets on January 25, 2023 -- That’s up 16% from last year’s count
- That same Homeless Census estimated there would be over 16,000 Las Vegans who would experience homelessness at some point during 2023, up from 14,000 last year
- 2023 marked the highest number of unhoused recorded by the PIT Count since 2018
- Of those numbers, 15% were veterans, 5% were unaccompanied minors, and 12% were families with children (Help Hope Home)
- Nevada has the 9th highest homeless rate in the nation (Security.org)
Local law, as it stands now:
- The City of Las Vegas’ encampment ordinance was passed on a 5-2 vote by the City Council in November 2019, with criminal provisions going into effect on February 1, 2020
- LV’s ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to camp or sleep on public sidewalks or streets when shelter beds are available
- Penalties are up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine
- The City of Henderson adopted an ordinance this June similar to Las Vegas’, which makes it a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or 6 months in jail to sleep, cook, or camp on the streets when shelter beds are open
National law, as it stands now:
- In 2022, in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass (Oregon), the 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of unhoused people, overturning a law that jailed and fined people for living on the streets, even if there was no shelter space available
- In 2018, in Martin v. City of Boise (Idaho), the court ruled the same: that it’s unconstitutional to punish unhoused people for sleeping on the streets when there are no shelter beds open
- Henderson and Vegas were among the 15 Western cities to put their names on an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, submitted September 25, seeking the overturning of both Martin and Johnson
Guests: Michael Lyle, reporter, Nevada Current; Merideth Spriggs, chief kindness officer, Caridad; Christopher Peterson, legal director, ACLU of Nevada