Solving the homeless problem

Why are there people on the streets and what is preventing us from getting everyone stuck without a home in and around Southern Nevada into suitable, permanent housing? Surely it is time to do something… new? Different? Helpful, even? It’s admittedly a challenge even for the professionals, let alone sofa-cushion, social justice warriors armed only with Twitter indignation and meaningful YouTube links. (We discuss homelessness so much and yet, how often is a currently homeless person at the discussion table?)

The stakes are real. During another inevitable summer of mercury popping past 100 degrees on most days, we saw hundreds of blistered, dazed individuals sleeping on sidewalks and wandering alongside the broiling asphalt lanes of traffic in the streets of Las Vegas. We saw local businesses and homeowners struggling between their compassionate natures and ire over the acute disruption that comes from unkempt, often boisterous people dragging bags or carts full of what appears to be garbage (but isn’t garbage to the owners) onto their private property. Sometimes it’s in a very aggressive way; other times there’s a clear desire to want to be invisible and left alone even as they can’t possibly be ignored by their mere presence.

I have traversed the land of modest proposals in order to come up with a few perhaps immodest resolutions. I am going to write a series of columns about them. And I will start by suggesting that we should stop calling people who find themselves without indoor shelter “the homeless” and stop collectively referring to the wide range of issues causing and keeping people in the streets as “a problem.”

Before you deride my “solve” as a mere game of semantics solely focused on fostering respect for the complexity of human existence and the de-stigmatization of calamitous events, let me expand on it — and how we can make our world, or at least our streets, a better place.

The problem with calling it the “homeless problem” is that it effectively lumps all people in the street into one group. We then seek the one solution that covers as many people as it can for the smallest amount of money. That’s how government works in the realm of community safety nets. Then, when we don’t see big results, we point out a few verifiable “successes” to “prove” that we really are fixing things and lump most everyone else into the “unreachable.”

Families, children and teens, and veterans, have a pretty straightforward onramp to services because there are typically more niche services available, and also higher rates of “motivated” (read: compliant) individuals in these groups — and most people in the “square” (read: not living life on a tenuous edge) community will get behind and talk about these folks because it feels better to help kids, veterans and families than, say, the other sub-categories (listed over and again in conversations): crazy people, street criminals and drug addicts. 

The fact that some of the categories of less-easy-to-figure-out people on our streets are a mix of humans with mental disorders/challenges, hustlers looking for opportunities to steal or con, and users looking for a hit of the steady downtown flow of drugs that temporarily tempers the sadness of existence (until a monkey on ones back becomes a monster) does not stop us from generally lumping all people on the streets we can’t “fix” together. It’s easy to lump.

And when “square society” finds itself forced to interact with the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy people in the streets, there is inevitably a demand for government to do better, and then government also winds up mostly (but not exclusively) celebrating tiny victories centered on the people who are easiest to get off the streets (at least temporarily) — and calls the rest “service-resistant.” They may even develop a mindset that leads to figuring out ways to criminalize the subcategories (more on that later).

And herein lies the core of the failed approach our community has been mired in for the better part of two decades. We focus on helping those who want help, and we ostracize — by way of arrest, shooing, indiscriminate clearing of makeshift camps, and generally throwing up hands in frustration when individuals who should be wanting to better their own situations — those who don’t gladly take advantage of the limited, sometimes high-barrier services and assistance the government assumes people should be clamoring for.

The Metropolitan Police Department and the City of Las Vegas (where many people who are unhoused in the Las Vegas valley tend to congregate in more visible numbers) have both been criticized for being unkind and even mean to people on our streets. Both have launched initiatives to show they are doing… something. Clark County is doing stuff, too! And Henderson and North Las Vegas. And state government! Everyone dutifully doing their part because it touches all parts of our state. Too often, however, each jurisdiction seems to be going at it alone. They seemingly act without really consulting each other, finding consensus, giving up weird jurisdictional mind-palaces or crafting a comprehensive, step-by-step master plan with accountability, funding or guidance (though a regional plan of sorts does exist on a website and a new State law yet to be fully activated suggests more communication is planned but really to what end in the current crisis)? 

What we do have is millions of dollars pouring into all these go-at-it systems that do not provide us with sufficient data or trackable results to elevate the public conversation (nor engage the vital business community financial commitment). Nor do they do the one thing that everyone generally agrees is the best answer: get people into permanent, suitable housing with access to wraparound services. As it is, people are suffering; governments are looking to help; but the help is simply not helping.

So where does that put me in the conversation? Am I an unappreciative crank who is always mad that not enough is being done? The person who seems to demand “the perfect” while ignoring the good of various benevolent endeavors? I’m not trying to be. I’m just saying that right now the mess is too big and complex and involves too many interactions of too many unconnected systems with not enough tracking of information that would help us do better. Is it hard? Yes. If it wasn’t hard, we wouldn’t be seeing our sidewalks turn from places of walking into those of merely surviving.

I bring some experience to the subject. I served as a Municipal Court judge where people deemed chronically homeless appeared daily; in fact they comprised the majority of cases on any docket for most of my tenure. I regularly attended and spoke at a prior version of the State Interagency Council on Homelessness representing the Fremont Street Experience beseeching a call-to-action that died with the disbanding of that committee. I’ve also worked on developing programs to quash warrants for minor offenses associated with people who are homeless — and getting them to services. I volunteer on the regular for legal clinics at the Las Vegas Mission and have been active over the years in the annual Homeless Connect program. I serve on the Pro Bono Project Advisory Council for Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. And I’ve been in the trenches of the criminal justice system where people who are homeless often find themselves.

My desire is to inspire effective action on what I hope we all want in Southern Nevada and really all of Nevada: a fair, kind place where humans can live indoors no matter their economic or personal situation with minimal government interference and a maximum of magnanimity.

On that note, I do not want to see the City of Las Vegas’s remarkably short-sighted, troublesome and generally cruel proposed initiative see the light of day. It is wrought with unintended consequences and the sort of thinking that got us to present-day “critical” mode. I am glad to see that many people in the Southern Nevada community are very upset about this new ordinance dubbed “an act to criminalize homelessness.”  

Without getting too deep into the specific language, the proposed ordinance essentially makes it unlawful to “camp out” on the sidewalks in designated parts of (mostly) downtown Las Vegas when there is shelter space of some sort available, mostly meaning the “Homeless Courtyard.” The last part of that is in supposed compliance with the perceived guideline telegraphed from an important Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that stopped the City of Boise, Idaho from basically doing the same thing. Our city attorneys obviously looked at that decision, and tried to figure out what they could do that would not run afoul of the ban on this sort of government conduct. (They’re reading that decision far too narrowly and will invariably lose in every court they enter if they try to enforce it.)

The “good” news is that the City of Las Vegas (and more importantly the Metropolitan Police Department) have no serious interest (or ability) in enforcing this mostly unworkable law, but obviously are posturing to once again show the angry business community and fed up residents of the area that they are doing “something” to stop the unappealing, unhealthy and sometimes dangerous existence of humans doing sometimes gross (sometimes vital) human things in the public eye. 

The “bad” news is that this distracting, short-sighted, illegal new “law” is going to cost a ton in litigation, make the City look even worse, have no net effect on reducing homelessness, and cloud the needed introspection on the shortcomings of the dysfunctional “Homeless Courtyard.” Dysfunctional in that — based on my conversations with people who have tried to use it — it provides some good services and resources for some of the people, but does so inconsistently and without all the measures really needed. Those measures being coordination with county social services to provide people with reliable transportation, medical care and pharmaceuticals, steady showers and covered shelter.

There are other issues that deserve attention from the groups deriding the City’s latest move. For one, homelessness is already criminalized in the City of Las Vegas. Anyone working in the criminal justice system knows this and presumably so does City Council. Indeed, encampments of people who are homeless have routinely (and often under the radar) been raided and dismantled with the threat of arrest to anyone who resists for many decades. There are permissible arrests for a dozen violations already in effect from obstructing a sidewalk to unlawful possession of a shopping cart.

Once the camps are displaced, and arrests made, the high-power water hose crew comes in and washes away the evidence (and sometimes the hastily left behind possessions including personal items like identification cards that would be useful to the person later). The Municipal Court then swells with an influx of cases which either get dismissed out of hand, credited with time served upon a guilty conviction, or (for serial offenders) a stretch of taxpayer-funded jail time. 

Metro police already were and are patrolling the streets, advising people they should get out of the never-ending cross-hairs of the City by checking in at the Courtyard or any other available shelter services. But not constantly, because Metro recognizes the impossibility of arresting every person who is homeless, and has better things to do than participate in the cycle of arrest, disrupt, jail, release, repeat. Indeed, only the Las Vegas Marshals are likely to step up the number of arrests (to do the bidding of the Council) if this new “law” is passed, but more than likely the calls will continue to go to Metro as the Marshals have limited jurisdiction.

Either way, the new “law” is simply another set of words and ordinance numbers to write down on the paperwork when there is an arrest. It’s not going to result in significantly more arrests than before. And even if there is an arrest under the new ordinance, it’s going to be declared invalid because even if Metro can verify that there are appropriate open spaces in shelters at any given moment, the new “law” doesn’t provide for exigencies that may make a specific shelter impracticable to certain person. 

If a person, say, has been bullied or beaten up before at the recommended shelter, or has had their stuff stolen (which happens all the time if you ask those who go there), does the City really think the Ninth Circuit is going to uphold their silly little “law”? Or what if the person has a dog? Or needs or wants privacy for health reasons? There are literally hundreds of reasons why a person who is homeless might not prefer a Las Vegas shelter situation to a sidewalk — and as I said, the spirit of the Boise decision is going to haunt the City as they litigate their way to flames (and legal fees to the ACLU, or whomever, again).

Floating all this “tough love” (and that’s what people like Mayor Carolyn Goodman likely think) to incentivize people to use the Courtyard or move their camps to other jurisdictions like the County or nearby North Las Vegas or more likely residential neighborhoods not covered by the new business-minded law is part of a we-want-to-help-them so we’re-going-to-threaten-them mentality because that’s how you incentivize people to change their behavior, right?

Wrong. Just what do these elected officials think happens to the people who wind up getting arrested? How do arrests, jail time, fines, disrupting living patterns, and taking people away from their support routines (and maybe meds) help end homelessness? People who have never been in jail for a day are usually quite cavalier about creating situations that put people in jail, but even the most together person’s life is going to be negatively affected by going to jail. 

I will say this, though: the City of Las Vegas is a municipality in much larger and richer Clark County. The City has a Department of Public Safety and an Office of Community Services with limited resources and reach. Clark County has its own much bigger and more far-reaching divisions to administer social services for its residents. Because of a joint agreement in effect for many years, both are served by (and have oversight of) the very independent-minded Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department run by an elected sheriff, but generally speaking, Clark County controls Metro’s budget. Indeed, Clark County controls quite a lot. Virtually all funding for direct and indirect services to the population for housing insecure individuals passes through the County — and it is therefore in the best position to do something effective for all parts of the Vegas valley.

When forced to act on the basic issue of shelter, the city chose to go it alone in creating a “fix.” They created a very expensive resource center that wound up being a mostly outdoors, mostly safe, low-barrier clubhouse that is underfunded, understaffed, lacking in comprehensive trackable results and which more people who are homeless choose to avoid than use. And it required money that would have been better used for actual housing and more desirable services. What the City should have done and now needs to do is work within a regional coordinated effort to come up with a popular, results-oriented, system of flexible, individualized services to help the most vulnerable. The time for postering and heartless “tough love” is long past. 
So what should they do? What can anyone do with such a complex set of challenges? Well, at the risk of being overly exhaustive and wordy, stay tuned over the next few weeks as I endeavor to throw a host of topics into the mix. Some are expensive (though possibly a net cost-saving); some might be controversial. They discuss homelessness as a mental health and/or a health care crisis; the overlap and differences with the affordable housing discourse; the role of the business community and technology; the need for a new philosophy at the police department and a better understanding the hustler-life in our weird city. All of which are coming from real world approaches that are hopefully suitable for our unique, transient resort town that possibly grew up too fast, but which has to take adult responsibility for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Dayvid Figler is a private criminal defense attorney based in Las Vegas. He previously served as an associate attorney representing indigent defendants charged with murder for the Clark County Special Public Defender’s office. During his legal tenure, he served a brief appointment as a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge. Figler has been cited as a noted legal expert in many places including the New York Times, National Public Radio, Newsweek, USA Today, Court TV and the Los Angeles Times. His award-winning radio essays have appeared on KNPR as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered program.