Ordinance to criminalize homelessness will hurt regional efforts to help people off the streets

By Emily Paulsen

In Southern Nevada there are more people experiencing homelessness on any given night than there are shelter beds or other resources. As a result, the shelters are full most nights of the year and thousands of people sleep on sidewalks, in storm drains and other places where no human should live. Not only are there not enough shelter beds for everyone in need, there are even fewer beds for especially vulnerable populations like youth, families, transgender individuals, disabled persons in wheelchairs and women.

Nearly 1,800 homeless individuals and families are waiting for placement into a homeless service program today. They want help, but we don’t have enough resources to go around. Some of them will be lucky enough to get one of the limited shelter beds available, but many will not. This is a problem, and one that should be addressed urgently. Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s proposed ordinance to ticket or arrest people for camping outdoors will not solve this problem. In fact, if passed this ordinance will hurt the region’s progress on reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness.  

Reasons why the mayor’s proposed ordinance will make homelessness more difficult to solve:

  1. Ticketing and jailing homeless people will create legal and financial barriers for them to get off the street. Ticketing people with little to no income perpetuates a cycle that can prolong the time people are on the street. Having the financial strain of paying off a fine could prevent someone from paying for a room, putting down a deposit for an apartment, or paying bus fare to look for employment. Further, if someone receives a warrant for their inability to pay a fine, the open warrant can prevent someone from getting employment or leasing an apartment/room. We need to focus on expanding the pathways out of homelessness, not create more roadblocks.
  2. Ticketing and jailing people for being homeless is really expensive and fiscally irresponsible. Scarce public resources should be spent wisely on cost-effective interventions that work, such as supportive housing, rather than on costly interventions such as ticketing and jailing homeless people. It costs more to jail someone that it does to provide supportive housing to them. In FY 2018-19, the Las Vegas Municipal Court spent $2.5 million on avoidable proceedings related to homelessness. The individual cost per inmate in the Detention Center is $170.60 per night. The cost to provide Permanent Supportive Housing to someone experiencing chronic homelessness is only $58.00 per night. In FY 2018-19 the City spent $1,348,754 on jail costs for the homeless, and $0.00 on Permanent Supportive Housing (CLV000274).
  3. Ordinances that criminalize the homeless put federal funds at stake. Each year our community competes for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care Funding, which is the main funding source for housing programs and services for the homeless in the region. HUD discourages communities from criminalizing the homeless, and in the national competition for funding, HUD awards points to communities that take proactive efforts to ensure criminalization does not occur. If passed, this ordinance could result in lost points on the federal grant application and reduce our ability to secure and/or increase this vital resource. 
  4. The ordinance will disproportionately hurt vulnerable populations, including homeless youth. There are even fewer shelter and housing resources for especially vulnerable populations including the medically fragile, people who are wheelchair bound, transgender individuals, domestic violence survivors, youth and families. It is understandable that couples and families like Dan and Jane, who’ve been married for twenty years, may choose to stick together outdoors when they can’t stay together in the same shelter. It is understandable that Lamar, an 18-year-old queer youth, would rather camp outdoors with other youth than surround himself with older adults in a crowded shelter because the youth shelters are full. The same is true for people who are transgender and/or who are domestic violence survivors. They may choose to camp outdoors in order to avoid possible victimization when the shelters that are tailored to meet their needs are full, which they often are.  The bottom line is that area shelters are not “one-size fits all.” Shelters operate uniquely depending on the population they serve, and they fill up at different points of the day and night. This ordinance places an impractical burden on law enforcement to determine whether the “right-fit” shelter(s) are full for the person that is pending arrest or a ticket at that particular time of the night. 
  5. The ordinance will have a disproportionate impact on people of color. People of color, especially black/African-Americans, experience homelessness in Southern Nevada at a disproportionate rate. People who are black/African-American are 37 percent of the local homeless census while making up only 23 percent of the local poverty census and 13 percent of the local general census. This ordinance would perpetuate a pattern of marginalization and increased incarceration rates of people who are black and poor. 
  6. Homeless individuals benefit from helping relationships with street outreach teams and law enforcement. As people make the way to the top of the 1,800-person waiting list for housing assistance, outreach teams need to be able to find them in order to move them into those programs. This ordinance will create fear among our homeless community members and may lead them to disengage from street outreach teams, especially those where law enforcement is embedded, such as the city’s MORE Team. When people feel threatened by the people in the community who can help them, they not only move to areas where it can be difficult for outreach teams to find them, but it can also be problematic for area businesses, neighborhoods and public works, such as private alleyways, railways, washes and neighborhoods. Worse, if someone is put in jail, her or she can lose their opportunity for housing altogether. 

Homelessness is solvable. We don’t lack solutions; we lack the political will to take proven solutions to scale. The mayor can’t rightly claim that people need a ticket or jail sentence in order to be motivated to leave the street, when there are nearly 1,800 people waiting for assistance today, and we don’t have the resources available to help them. During this critical time, the City of Las Vegas should not create policies that offer no evidence of success and which counter federal policy, hurt collaborative regional efforts, harm highly vulnerable populations and waste scarce public resources. 

By working together and investing in the expansion and preservation of affordable housing, and in evidenced-based solutions like supportive housing, we can build our homeless response system up so that homelessness is rare, and episodes are brief and non-recurring. There are many actions local government and private businesses can take to achieve this, and now is the time to double-down on those solutions. I’m committed to doing my part. Join me. 

Emily Paulsen, MSW, has been a homeless service provider and advocate for more than a decade in Southern NV. She is the executive director of the Nevada Homeless Alliance, co-chair of the Southern NV Homelessness Continuum of Care Board, a cross-sector body that leads regional efforts to end homelessness, and the chair of the Policy Council on Homelessness.