Southern Nevada homelessness board begins to regroup after passage of Las Vegas ordinance

The Southern Nevada Continuum of Care board — the regional body recognized by HUD to coordinate federal funds dedicated to address homelessness — gathered in Las Vegas on Thursday for the first time since the passage of an ordinance banning certain lodging activities on public sidewalks, with members expressing frustration and fear that the region could lose grant money because of the new rule.

Board Co-Chair Kathi Thomas-Gibson, who is the director of the Office of Community Services for the City of Las Vegas and responsible for providing homeless services, fielded pointed questions from her peers for an ordinance passed by the City Council.

“Kathi, you are the chair and sit on the [Continuum of Care] board and we were not a part of these conversations before the ordinance even came up,” board member Shalimar Cabrera said. “We need to figure out how to address it.”

Thomas-Gibson agreed with Cabrera that the CoC board needed to decide its position on the ordinance. She recommended that the board use a steering committee to determine that, but said she would not speak on the ordinance during the Thursday meeting.

“There were a lot of assumptions about what we knew or didn’t know. So, I literally had people on my staff [say to me], ‘How dare you?,” Thomas-Gibson said in response to Cabrera’s comment.

The city’s Office of Community Services will play a central role in the new law, which says that the director or a designee will immediately notify the Department of Public Safety and Metro police to not enforce the ordinance when the Courtyard Homeless Resources Center and shelters are at full capacity.

According to the ordinance, once the Office of Community Services notifies law enforcement that shelters — Las Vegas Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and The Shade Tree of Las Vegas — are full, enforcement of the ordinance will be suspended until 6:00 a.m. the following day.

It’s not the first time that groups providing services to homeless individuals have said they were excluded from the ordinance’s development. During public comment before the ordinance went to a vote on Nov. 6, CoC Co-Chair Emily Paulsen, the executive director for the Nevada Homeless Alliance, urged the council members to scrap the bill and come back to the table.

“You did not consult with regional leaders on this,” Paulsen said. “It puts our federal funding at risk. HUD discourages communities from ordinances like this because it’s a waste of scarce public resources and it hurts people getting off the street. It does not help and makes their situation worse.”

Paulsen added that the ordinance did not align with the CoC board’s regional plan for homelessness, which focuses on solutions for affordable housing and addressing chronic homelessness.

CoC Co-Vice Chair Arash Ghafoori addressed the City Council on Nov. 6 as well.

“Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth cannot support any bill that would potentially result in homeless youth getting arrested,” said Ghafoori, the homeless youth group’s executive director. “The bill could result in young adults having a criminal record, creating barriers throughout their life and giving them a scarlet letter that could affect their future employment, public benefits including education and securing housing.”

Ghafoori added that the city-funded Courtyard, a semi-sheltered, security guard-monitored area for sitting and sleeping that provides bathrooms, water and bag storage, is “not an appropriate setting for homeless youth.” Ghafoori emphasized that there are not enough diversified services in place to meet the needs of all types of homeless populations who will be affected by the ordinance. 

The ordinance went into effect on Sunday and will continue with phased implementation, with the criminal penalties portion not effective until Feb. 1. By Jan. 31, signs will be posted indicating the new prohibitions and the city will refine procedures for outreach and sharing information with law enforcement.