The War on the Poor

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Carolyn Goodman is the mayor of Las Vegas and she has reached her term limit.  Since she cannot run again, she has decided to become a cartoon villain in her last term.

As predicted I was arrested on January 20th, 2020 while protesting.  It was a very educational experience and it confirmed a lot of my fears about these unjust ordinances.  I have every intention of telling you about the protests, the night in jail and the chaos since in the next few weeks.

I’m going to start with the laws that I object to first.  There are two laws that the city council recently passed that criminalize homelessness.  There are several other laws the police only enforce when the people breaking them are homeless.  I’m going to start back in November with the passage of the first new law.

Bill 2019-36

You can read the bill yourself if you click on the link above but the summary goes like this. “Generally prohibits camping, lodging or similar activities within any public right-of-way adjacent to a residential property, within specified districts of the city of Las Vegas, or within five-hundred feet of any receiving dock of a food processing facility.”

If you keep up on current events in regards to homelessness, you may note that this law sounds an awful lot like the camping-ban in Idaho that was struck down by a federal court.  You’re right, it is very similar.  The key difference is a caveat that says that the law cannot be enforced unless their are available beds in any of city’s homeless shelters.

If you read my 2018 article In Defense of Street Feeding you know that there are legitimate reasons for someone to avoid homeless shelters.  People staying there are robbed, assaulted and bullied by other visitors and staff.  Many LGBTQ people don’t feel safe in the shelter that they would be assigned to.  Some homeless people are under the age of eighteen and fear being returned to the abusive homes they were fleeing.  There are also very strict times that people are allowed to sleep.  Since The Courtyard isn’t indoors, it doesn’t even qualify as a shelter.

A major problem with this law is that there are about 1200 “beds” available in Las Vegas for the homeless. That includes three-hundred mats on the concrete in The Courtyard.  There are about 6,500 unsheltered people on the streets of Las Vegas every night.  I hate math but even I know that there are not enough places for the homeless to sleep.

According to the shelters, that are being forced into dealing with a law they don’t support, most of the beds are occupied, most nights.  So let’s do the damn math.  Say that there are a hundred “beds” available one night in Vegas.  If we allow the police to enforce this ludicrous law and harass homeless people while they try to sleep, we will still have over five-thousand people sleeping in the street.  We have to ask ourselves whether it is worth harassing people to get a few dozen extra people off the street when literal thousands remain.  It is inevitable that a homeless person, woken up, perhaps on drugs or mentally unstable, disoriented and defensive takes a swing at a cop.  The second they do, the police have permission to use force against them.  How long until someone is seriously injured or killed?

The city set up a website to monitor the quantity of beds available and where they are available.  The shelters are struggling to update them already. In addition to getting five-hundred people sheltered and settled in, they now have to update this number every hour.  The city did not provide them with addition assistance, just additional demands.

Say that a police officer, hopefully a good cop that is having a good day, checks out the most recent numbers .  He can but isn’t obligated to provide transportation to the person.  They could be miles away from the shelter but if they refuse to go, they can be ticketed or jailed.  So what happens when they ticket them?

They can be ticketed up to $1000.  To someone who is sleeping on the sidewalk, that may as well be a millions dollars.  If they can’t afford a hotel room, they generally can’t afford the ticket. There are exceptions to this rule.

I recently had a chat with a formerly homeless man, Michael who told me that finding and keeping a job while homeless was nearly impossible.  He worked in a restaurant/bar where he got off work at 3 am.  He took a bus to the Corridor of Hope, where he arrived at 4 am.  If a bed was available at a shelter, he would go to sleep, only to be woken up at 6 am when visitors are forced to checkout.  Operating on two hours of sleep was miserable so he bought a tent and a sleeping bag and tried sleeping in the Courtyard.  His problem there was that the other visitors still woke up at the crack of dawn, to try to get to breakfast at the shelters.  Between the noise created by people packing up in the morning and the excessive number of dogs barking, he was still unable to sleep beyond 6 am.  Determined to keep his job, he started sleeping in parks and under bridges.  Twice the cops swept the area and threw his possessions away.  For him that meant that he had to use the money he was saving for an apartment to repurchase a tent, a sleeping bag and warm clothing.  He would have gotten off the streets faster, if he’d been allowed to occupy public space.  Until we can provide the working poor, like Michael, a place to sleep regardless of shift, the least we can do, is not make his life harder.

What happens to someone that is cited for sleeping outside? Knowing that they won’t be able to pay the fine, many people will chose to skip their court date and many more will be unable to get to the courthouse at the designated time and date.  When they don’t show up or are unable to pay the fine, a bench warrant is issued.  Until they can pay the fine, they will have a warrant out for their arrest.  It will be visible on background checks to employers, leasing agents, schools, etc.  A criminal charge will make them ineligible for some housing or services and others will give them a lower priority.

The police are known for stopping people they deem undesirable for negligible crimes, in order to run a warrant search on them. This technique is a thinly veiled variety of “stop and frisk.”  According to the 2017 Detention Services Report, released by Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, 204 people were arrested and incarcerated for remaining in a park after hours, 153 people were incarcerated for possession of a shopping cart, 69 people were jailed for vagrancy and another 53 people were charged with misuse of a bus shelter or bench.  An additional 268 people were jailed for jay-walking and I would bet that if we pinpointed these arrests the majority were in areas with high occurrences of homelessness.  It stands to reason that this will end with a lot of homeless people in jail.

Unable to pay bail, unable to pay the fine, it is essentially a debtor’s prison.  Very few resources are available in jail so they will be released with whatever clothes they wore in and whatever was in their pockets without a ride or anywhere to go.  To clarify and this is am important part to understand, they will be released from jail and go right back onto the street with nothing to show for their stay but a criminal record.  For this reason alone, many advocates for homeless youth opposed the bill.  A criminal record can haunt people that are already struggling.

If you are unmoved by the damage this bill could do to people, keep in mind that it costs the State of Nevada about $140 a day to jail someone.  That money, less than that money really, could provide housing, food and counseling that would eliminate many of the barriers that prevent people from reintegrating into society.  You can jail them and spit them back out onto the sidewalk, where you will very likely have to jail them again in the near future or you can help them help themselves and see many of them become productive members of society, that no longer require government support.

Well over a hundred people showed up in opposition to the camping ban law the day that the city council discussed it.  Opponents ranged from a county commissioner to representatives of the shelters to homeless people and people of every age, race, religion and socio-economic position in between.  We were a diverse group of people.

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The people in favor of the ordinance on the other hand….

meetingcityYou’ll note a very obvious lack of diversity in this group.  There were less than a dozen people who came to speak in support of this bill.  It still passed 5-2.  The most frustrating part was that at the end of the meeting, the city council members read prepared statements.  They were completely unwilling to take anything that we said into consideration.  They had already made up their minds.  The pleas of every group in town that works with the homeless, the shelters, the county and the citizens meant nothing.

We continued to try to contact the Mayor, to beg her to reconsider.  We spoke to the media.  We spoke to the homeless, you know, the people that are actually affected by this law.  We continued serving and we sought out help from the ACLU. We attended city hall meetings and we protested outside city hall almost weekly.  I prayed, a lot over these laws.

We warned everyone that Carolyn Goodman wasn’t finished yet.  Her plan to hide the homeless from public view would not be limited to available shelter beds.

Less than a month later, she proved us right.

Bill 2019-44

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So many protests, it’s kind of a blur.  

The second battle in the war on the poor is the second bill the city council passed.  You can read the bill above but I will quote you the important bit.  “The Director of the Department of Operations and Maintenance is authorized to determine and to designate certain hours of  cleaning for public sidewalks.  The director or a designee must place appropriate signs or markings to give notice of designated hours of cleaning.  During such designated and noticed hours of cleaning, no person shall sit, lie, sit, camp or otherwise obstruct the cleaning of designated public sidewalks…”

The first bill allowed the police to arrest or fine people for sleeping in public between the hours of five pm and six am if any space was available.  The second bill allows the police to arrest or fine people whether or not there is room available in a shelter.  While signs are being posted, they just say that people can be arrested or fined during designated street cleaning hours.  So what are street cleaning hours?  Your guess is as good as mine.  There is a map that shows what days street cleaning vehicles go through each neighborhood on the city website but these elusive, “street cleaning hours” are a mystery.

That gives the city and the police the ability to chase off or incarcerate the homeless for being on public sidewalks, essentially whenever they want.  The bill also states that they can be fined or arrested everyday that they’re in violation of the law.  They aren’t required or even encouraged to offer them help, they just write the ticket and move on.  We already know that the tickets are unlikely to be paid and many people will end up serving time in jail.

This time, the city council didn’t bother to pretend that this law would usher the homeless to services.  Before a doubting Thomas’ asks, the city wasn’t having a problem cleaning the sidewalks.  You don’t have to take my word for it because at the city council meeting Jace Radke, the city spokesman said, “There have been no past problems with sidewalk cleaning.”

There was another vote, more ignored citizens and logic and the same 5-2 vote that  enacted the first law, did the same for the second.  Then the prepared statements which to be honest, sound a lot like villain monologues, after passing such obvious anti-homeless laws.

There is no evidence that the kind of penalties that the Las Vegas City Council is forcing on it’s citizens have ever resulted in positive, long-term change.   While supporters of the laws like to say that Las Vegas will become like San Francisco or Skid Row in Los Angeles without laws like this, they are ignoring the fact that the cause of mass homelessness in both those places is a lack of affordable housing.  Until we address the systematic roots of the problem, the fact that the majority of Las Vegans are living pay check to pay check and the cost of living has soared in the past decade, we will continue to see more and more people facing poverty and even homelessness.

I like to remind people that most Americans are less than two bad months away from homelessness and we are never two good months away from being wealthy.  Writing this, from the safety and comfort of my suburban home, living a life that is drenched in undeserved privilege, I still have more in common with every homeless person than I do any member of the Las Vegas City Council.  Maybe that’s part of the problem.

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