Feeding homeless is a losing bet in Las Vegas

City's ban on free meals in parks dismays advocates

Published: Sunday, Dec. 10 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Josh Collins, left, a homeless man living in Las Vegas, helps distribute free soup and bread in a park. Such meal efforts are illegal.

Marlene Karas/Stringer, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — This may be a boomtown, but Las Vegas is scattered with signs of bust. The newest sits outside a rare grassy refuge near the city's withered downtown.

The "Park Closed" sign was posted last week, after a fight between two homeless men turned deadly, and city officials, led by Mayor Oscar Goodman, took the unusual step of closing the park. They called it a safety hazard.

Others, who point out the park is a hangout for homeless people, read the move differently. Advocates say it's another maneuver in Sin City's ongoing war against its poor.

"There is a brokenness here, it's a brokenness," said Julia Occhiogrosso, an advocate for the poor with Catholic Worker. "The whole sense of this ancient act of hospitality, the sense that to be human is to help each other out, it's under siege."

Las Vegas, known as the land of fast money and cheap living, has for years grappled with how to handle those who don't strike it rich — one of the many growing pains in a region that expands by more than 5,000 people a month. A January 2005 census counted 14,500 homeless people in southern Nevada.

No one has made more news and sparked more debate on the issue than the outspoken Goodman, a former mob lawyer with a flair for the dramatic.

His city's boundary stops short of the big-ticket glitz of the Strip, and Goodman has sought to extend the prosperity northward by cleaning up and revitalizing Las Vegas' aging downtown.

The mayor once proposed moving the homeless to an abandoned prison 30 miles outside the city, and he's talked about his desire to move those who are healthy but refuse help "as far away from Las Vegas as possible." Goodman once accused Salt Lake City officials of busing its destitute to his town but later apologized.

Under Goodman's watch, the city has conducted massive sweeps of homeless encampments but also has tried to better coordinate its regional resources and outreach.

Goodman and city officials say they're struggling to deal with the chronically homeless, often the mentally ill and substance addicted, who refuse shelter.

The current battleground is in public parks.

In August, the Las Vegas City Council banned sleeping within 500 feet of feces — an administrative blunder, officials admit, that has since been repealed. (Still, three homeless men were arrested under the law, and the city is investigating why the men were "mistakenly charged.")

In July, Las Vegas became one of the first cities to make it illegal to feed the poor in parks — a reaction to a homeless advocate who frequently bought homemade spaghetti, vegetable soup, sandwiches and water to the now shuttered Huntridge Circle Park.

"Nobody wants it in their back yard," said Gail Sacco, who began offering the six free meals a week last year.

The closure moved the homeless issue to Goodman's back yard.

Sacco now brings food to the homeless in another park — this one across the street from City Hall. On a recent afternoon, her delivery brought a dozen people to huddle around a bucket of vegetable soup sending steam up toward the mayor's 10th floor offices.

"Obviously, there are people there who are dangerous, but they don't have to be homeless to be dangerous. And being homeless does not make you a criminal," Sacco said.

"Oscar has the idea that every homeless person is public enemy No. 1," said Greg Malm, a 58-year-old homeless man who says he played in Circle Park as child and has passed out there as adult. "He wants this city to be lily white, for the tourists."

Goodman rebuts the characterizations and shows little patience for Sacco and her work.

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