By Ken Ritter
LAS VEGAS — Facing protests about a “war on the poor,” Las Vegas officials were considering a law Wednesday that would make it illegal to sleep on the streets when beds are available at established shelters.
The measure makes Las Vegas the latest city in the U.S. West — from San Francisco and Seattle to Honolulu and Salt Lake City — to consider new laws to deal with complaints about homelessness. The Vegas proposal has drawn criticism from several Democratic presidential candidates.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that it’s unconstitutional to prosecute people from sleeping in public places when there aren’t enough shelter beds. City Attorney Brad Jerbic said he intentionally wrote the measure to say “if beds are available” after the ruling struck down a camping ban from Boise, Idaho.
About 100 people rallied outside City Hall ahead of a contentious public hearing and planned City Council vote on whether to make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for sleeping or camping in public areas.
“It’s criminalizing the homeless,” said Rev. Leonard Jackson, associate pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas and director of the regional Faith Organizing Alliance.
Protesters chanted, “The war on the poor has got to go,” later taking their demonstration into the council meeting.
Business interests support the measure to deal with complaints about people sleeping in office doorways and leaving trash and human waste on streets and alleys. It would apply to the city’s downtown urban core, not the tourist-heavy Las Vegas Strip, which is overseen by a different jurisdiction.
Speakers at the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed.
“If we can build stadiums, then we can build housing for the homeless,” George Allen, a self-described “working homeless” home-care worker, told the council.
Allen was referring to a $2 billion, 65,000-seat football stadium set to open next year for the relocated Oakland Raiders. Taxpayers are contributing $750 million to the project through hotel room taxes.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who sponsored the anti-camping measure, tamped down audience outbursts with warnings and ordered several people removed for repeated disruptions. She limited public comments to one minute and said a vote by the seven-member council would come late in the day.
Jerbic, the city attorney, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month that there will be “plans to always have a certain number of beds available” for the homeless.
City officials report spending more than $35 million on homeless-related services last year, including outreach, fire, police and community services.
The camping ban proposal has drawn opposition from Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Tom Steyer and Julian Castro. Castro, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, attended an Oct. 2 protest against the proposed ordinance.
Michael McDonald, head of the Nevada Republican Party, accused the Democrats of “pandering to Las Vegans” and “advocating for the homeless to continue suffering on our streets.” He said the proposal requires warnings and offering transportation to a shelter with an available bed before a person would get cited.
An annual survey taken one night in January counted more than 5,500 people on the streets in Las Vegas and surrounding cities and county property. Officials estimate that more than 14,000 people are homeless in and around Las Vegas at some point during the year.
The Review-Journal has tallied about 2,000 beds plus an open-air, 24/7 courtyard offered by the city where officials say more than 300 people stay on any given night. It has 220 sleeping mats.