Thursday, March 19, 2009

Las Vegas: Proposals for homeless include tent city acreage, forced aid

Proposals for homeless include tent city acreage, forced aid

Goodman said Las Vegas can no longer tolerate problem

Photos by K.M. Cannon.

The tent city on Foremaster Lane in downtown Las Vegas has the city in an endless loop, Councilman Ricki Barlow complained Wednesday.

City crews regularly clean up the litter, urine and feces, while the people pack up their belongings or have them hauled off by the authorities. And a few days later it needs to be done again.

"It's as if we've never been there," Barlow said. "There's got to be a next level that we can take it to."

Dino Reynosa, meanwhile, continues to make regular trips to the tent city after he gets off work nearby, bringing water and food to the residents, even though he knows he could be ticketed for his charity. That's better, he said, than what comes next for someone who has no home, no job and no food.

"What's the last resort in order to survive?" Reynosa asked Wednesday afternoon, rolling up a cardboard flat that recently held a case of bottled water. "Crime."

People like Reynosa get hassled for their efforts, said one tent dweller who goes by the name "New York." Police, he says, say, "If you feed them, they won't go away."

"There's a shelter here," New York says, pointing across the street from his tent to one of several buildings in the area that house services for the homeless. "How're we going to go away?"

And that's exactly it. The tent city and the homeless corridor are not new issues, and the parameters sketched Wednesday haven't changed in years. That's an "indictment," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said during the council's regular meeting.

"This isn't going to get better by itself," he said. "But I think the city can no longer tolerate this."

And so once more Las Vegas officials have decided that definitive action is needed to address the concentration of the down-and-out around the "homeless corridor" centered at Main Street and Owens Avenue.

Strangely on Wednesday, a homeless advocate who's no fan of the mayor and an actual homeless person both pitched the same solution -- define a large area, preferably vacant land, and let homeless people take care of themselves there.

The City Council took no action Wednesday, nor has any area been proposed as a new haven for the homeless. The only specific action advocated came from Goodman, who proposed researching a new law that could require a homeless person to get treatment and social services whether he or she wanted them or not.

"We should've had a facility to ... take care of them in a decent fashion, but we don't have the ability to get them into such a facility without arresting them," the mayor said. "They're not committing a crime. They're just creating a public health hazard.

"Until we can 'force' them, in a nice way -- that's 'force' in quotes -- there's no sense in having a space. They won't go."

Frank Perna of Southern Nevada Advocates for Homeless People disputed some of the mayor's comments at the meeting -- "You're talking about mentally ill people!" he protested.

But the mayor also talked about setting aside acreage for the homeless, and Perna said that has worked in other cities. In fact, in some cases the encampments were even self-governing and self-regulating.

Requiring people to accept services is probably a constitutional and practical nonstarter, he said. Even someone who is considered a threat can only be held for 72 hours without charges, which for purposes of breaking a homelessness cycle is "worthless," Perna said.

"In all this time, we should've had a lot of housing," he said. "You're talking about housing hundreds when you should be housing thousands.

"We should be ashamed of ourselves."

Mike Day, who has been homeless "on and off for three years," did not attend the council meeting. Nor is he one of the people who has a tent in the Foremaster tent city, although he hopes to have one soon.

But he, too, said that homeless people would be a lot better off if they had somewhere to go.

"Why not give us a field, put some Port-o-Potties in, and let us live there?" he asked.

Church groups and nonprofits would line up to help, added Reynosa, who volunteers with two churches that have homeless ministries. And he doubts there would be problems attracting residents.

"Let's compare apples to apples," he said. "There's starving people, and there's drug addicts. We can weed them out ourselves."

About two dozen tents were lined up on the sidewalks on Foremaster and Main Street on Wednesday afternoon, with about 100 homeless people in the nearby area. The homeless population grows after nightfall, Barlow said.

Many of the tents looked new or barely used. Reynosa said he's collecting tent donations, and they undoubtedly will be welcomed. A throng of people, mostly men, sat on both sides of Foremaster, with concrete for a home and no shade except for what a hat could provide.

Church groups and individuals who want to help the less fortunate, especially in a down economy, often drop off more tents and other supplies to homeless people in the corridor, said Linda Lera-Randle El, director of the Straight from the Streets homeless outreach program.

The homeless would be better served if people donated to established charities that work to get them off the street for good, she said.

"They're dropping off truckloads of clothes, food and tents, but they're not dropping off solutions," she said. "You can't haul a bunch of tents there and think it's going to solve" homelessness.

The tents draw attention to the homeless problem in the area, making it appear as though it's gotten worse, Lera-Randle El said.

"When you see all those tents, it looks like a lot of people, but I'm not sure it's really more people," she said.

It wouldn't do much good to crack down on the sidewalk campers, she added: "You can stop tents on one street. They'll just pop up on another."

Review-Journal writer Lynnette Curtis contributed to this report. Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal. com or 702-229-6435.


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Peter S. Lopez aka: Peta

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