Quantcast

Feeding homeless is a losing bet in Las Vegas

City's ban on free meals in parks dismays advocates

Published: Monday, June 29 2015 6:03 p.m. MDT

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) 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."
Julia Cox, 38, who is homeless, eats at a park. The mayor decries the free meals. (Marlene Karas/Stringer, Associated Press) Julia Cox, 38, who is homeless, eats at a park. The mayor decries the free meals. (Marlene Karas/Stringer, Associated Press)
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.
"To give a sandwich in the park doesn't do anything," Goodman said. He calls advocates like Sacco "enablers crying like bleeding sheep."
"I'm trying to get these people to a shelter, that's where the services take place, not in a park," he said. "I won't coddle them."
Goodman is not alone in his frustration with Sacco and volunteers with the advocacy group Food Not Bombs that was involved in meal efforts in Circle Park.
The park had recently received a $1.5 million face lift that became a community project. That sort of civic involvement can be scarce in a region filled with newcomers and gated communities. Residents said they wanted to feel comfortable using the new space. Some complained the free food was drawing the poor to the park and away from the "homeless corridor" about three miles away, where most social services and shelters are concentrated.
After a meeting in which residents suggested several remedies, including more policing, an unanimous City Council chose to make it a misdemeanor to feed anyone "who a reasonable ordinary person" would believe to be entitled to public assistance, punishable with up to a $1,000 fine.
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ordinance, and a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional because it singled out a specific group of people. City officials promised to rewrite the law to make the ban stand up.
And when a homeless man was stabbed in the park Nov. 24, city officials ordered it closed indefinitely, although they acknowledge they didn't review crime statistics.
ACLU executive director Gary Peck describes the city's approach as "political theater of the absurd."
His group also is challenging the practice of allowing city marshals to kick people out of parks indefinitely and restrictions on adult in parks deemed "children's parks."
"There's a lot of bluster, enacting policies and laws that really do nothing to solve problems," Peck said. "The real problem is that we are living in a community where for whatever reason there has been a reluctance to dedicate the resources and time necessary to fixing these problems."
A 2002 ballot measure to raise taxes by 1 cent per $100 of assessed property won only 36 percent of the vote.
Goodman says no more money needs to be spent and no more services added. He notes the city's roughly 400 emergency shelter beds are often not full.
"No one is turned away," he said.
The mayor and other local leaders have formed a coalition of regional governments that devised a 10-point plan outlining goals for reducing the number of people living on the streets.
Shannon West, the director for the coalition, said the gaping holes in the system are drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health services. She also said people living on the streets need help becoming "housing ready."
She said media attention and legal wrangling can be "a little bit of a distraction to the progress we've made."
The dispute also has left advocates like Occhiogrosso reluctant to discuss their work. She and other Catholic Worker volunteers have been feeding homeless people four days a week or more for 20 years. They have taken a "nomadic" approach and serve early in the morning under the cover of pre-dawn darkness, she said.
"We just try to be low-key about it," she said.
She's been careful to avoid the attention given to Sacco and Circle Park, where a large sign declaring the closure covers a brightly painted mural.
The park will remain closed, Goodman said, until someone comes up with a way to curb the problems in the park.
"Until a light bulb gets lit in my head," he said.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company