The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
#5 Las Vegas, NV
Although homeless advocates in Las Vegas stated that shelters are overcrowded, city officials have done little to increase resources for individuals experiencing homelessness. Due to a lack of funding, the city’s Crisis Intervention Center was recently closed. Similarly, charitable organizations scrambled – albeit unsuccessfully – to replace the services the Crisis Intervention Center provided.
The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments, which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders. Homeless inhabitants of a campsite on Owens Avenue were forced to vacate the area just before Christmas 2004. Las Vegas’s Department of Neighborhood Services gave the order to clear the lot, because the property owner was “in violation of Las Vegas Municipal Code…dealing with nuisances.” Many social service providers were caught off guard by the notice, wishing the city had informed them before the sweep to ensure they could find places for homeless men and women to stay. Former residents of the campsite worried about finding a bed in one of the shelters because most of them are reserved for older men and women.
Despite reports that city, county, and state agencies were working together to provide homeless persons displaced by a January 2005 sweep of a downtown bridge, only 45 people out of 150 residents of the camp were placed in temporary housing. The site was declared a health hazard in August 2005 because people were urinating and defecating in the area around the camp. Bob McKenzie, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, commented, “we need to do whatever we can to help the homeless, but we need to take care of public safety first.” Transportation crews threw away inhabitants’ possessions, including tents, blankets, and family photos.
City officials’ attempt to break up another homeless camp in February 2005 was met with criticism by local homeless advocates, who argued that breaking up the camp would only create another camp elsewhere. They also noted that homeless people need treatment, supportive services, and permanent housing, all of which are not available. Several homeless people were unable to receive help from local agencies, because they were already receiving money from the federal government.
An analysis of Las Vegas police records revealed that arrests for charges such as trespassing, jaywalking, and pedestrians failing to obey traffic signals increased after a recent cleanup of a homeless camp. When homeless people are ejected from the camps, they move to other public places where they interact more with members of the community. The ACLU of Nevada suggested that Las Vegas police went out of their way to cite and arrest homeless people as a part of the sweep. According to Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, “It will take political will to dedicate the resources needed to move this situation in a positive direction. I haven’t seen anything from any jurisdiction to indicate that exists.”
In April 2005, plans to clean up a homeless encampment that had previously been swept at Owens Avenue were postponed due to lack of organization. Officials attempted to avoid criticism by posting signs at the site in both English and Spanish, warning people that the authorities were going to clean the area. The Southern Nevada Homeless Coalition was not informed of the sweep. Linda Lera-Randle El, director of Straight from the Streets, believes the sweep was “like penalizing the homeless for the shortcomings of the city, county, and state.”
Frank Wright Plaza, a small park across from City Hall, was a favorite daytime spot for homeless people seeking a place to nap. Regular visitors to the park said that it is a safe and comfortable place to recover from a tough night on the streets. However, city officials saw the park as a public nuisance, and have assigned marshals to patrol the area several times daily. In order to keep homeless individuals out of future parks, the city considered privatizing the parks, enabling owners to kick out unwanted people. Mayor Oscar Goodman fervently supported the idea, saying, “I don’t want them there. They’re not going to be there. I’m not going to let it happen. They think I’m mean now; wait until the homeless try to go over there.”
In a more positive step, Metro Police are expected to begin seeking a liaison for homeless people, raising its level of commitment after being criticized for its handling of the homeless situation. The Metro Police have been at the center of the homelessness controversy on many occasions in recent years. In addition to their role in homeless camp sweeps, the Metro Police have faced allegations that officers were targeting homeless people for misdemeanor crimes, such as urinating in public. The new liaison would work with both public and private agencies to help homeless people, and will hopefully prevent future arrests and sweeps.
Sources for City Narratives
The National Coalition for the Homeless
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty