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Las Vegas just made sleeping outdoors a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. And the new rule will fully go into effect at the height of winter.
The Las Vegas City Council passed the ordinance Wednesday night, which bans anyone from sleeping outside in the city’s downtown or residential neighborhoods when there’s a bed available at a nearby shelter. The law will go into effect Sunday, although the criminal element won’t be enforced until February, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The ban will not affect the famous Las Vegas Strip.
Las Vegas also won’t be able to charge someone sleeping outside with a crime if they’re only on the streets because the shelters are full. That could make the law mostly toothless, since shelter beds can be so hard to come by.
The city council had primarily described the new rule as a mechanism to break up homeless encampments, which pepper the streets of downtown. Some homeless people even sleep in a maze of underground tunnels beneath the city. But scores of people, including several Democratic presidential candidates, voiced their opposition and urged city officials to consider housing solutions, instead.
Homeless advocates also warned council members and the city’s mayor that homeless people wouldn’t reasonably be able to pay the fine, that the packed shelters are cruel, and that a criminal record would make many people unable to rent.
“Criminalizing homelessness is cruel, shortsighted and an absurd waste of resources,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, wrote in a tweet after the ordinance passed. “This ordinance will drive people who are homeless deeper into poverty while doing nothing to address their need for affordable homes.”
Just the potential of the ordinance had caused widespread condemnation and high-profile protests in recent weeks. Protesters — including both current and former homeless people — turned out in force at Wednesday’s city council meeting and chanted “the war on poor has got to go” and “housing not handcuffs.” Some cried. Multiple people were removed for shouting.
“If you don’t help us to help them so we can get the problem solved, we’re not going to vote for you, or you, or you,” one protester said of the homeless population at the council meeting Wednesday.
“These folks have no choice,” one attorney added later. In the hours leading up to the vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and former Vice President Joe Biden also joined almost every other major presidential candidate in calling the proposal cruel.
Sleeping in tunnels
The number of these “camping bans” has grown 60% over the past eight years, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. But Las Vegas and other cities might’ve criminalized street camping outright if not for a controversial decision last year from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which deemed it unconstitutional to jail or fine people if there weren’t adequate shelter beds available.
Cities across the West Coast have contested the ruling, which could eventually go before the Supreme Court, and tried to pass or enforce the anti-camping laws, anyway. Officials argue they don’t have the resources to build more shelters at the speed necessary to contain the problem.
Nevada’s affordable housing shortage is the worst in the nation. Only 19 homes are available for every 100 extremely low-income households, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And if a person can’t find a place to rent, it’s likely they can’t find a safe place to sleep for the night, either. Due to a steadily growing homeless population of about 5,500 people, shelters for the poor are often at or near capacity.
Even if a shelter bed opens up, many homeless people struggle to stay in shelters for more than a few days or weeks at a time due to restrictive rules, overcrowding, and lack of storage space.
For all of those reasons, some homeless people turned to the network of tunnels under the city, especially in winter. Presidential candidate and former HUD secretary Julian Castro toured those communities in April and was among the first candidates to call out Las Vegas’ proposed ordinance.
Cover image: A homeless man sleeps on a pedestrian bridge over Las Vegas Blvd on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tourism in America's "Sin City" has, within the past two years, made a significant comeback following the Great Recession, with visitors filling the hotels, restaurants, and casinos in record numbers. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)