Over strenuous objections from several Democratic presidential candidates, the Las Vegas City Council pushed ahead Wednesday with a controversial ordinance that activists have decried as "criminalizing homelessness."
Touted as a proposal to empower authorities to connect homeless Nevadans to needed services, the new law will ban sleeping on many city sidewalks if beds are available at Las Vegas shelters. The punishment could be as harsh as six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.
By the time the city was holding its hearing on the proposal Wednesday morning, eight candidates — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — had denounced the measure. Castro, who handled homeless policies as President Obama's secretary of housing and urban development, went to Las Vegas City Hall last month to oppose it.
Dozens of campaign staff and supporters joined protests at City Hall this week. Sanders urged supporters on his email list to attend a morning rally on the measure.
Still, it passed the City Council 5-2 on Wednesday after a tense nine-hour public meeting that resulted in some people being escorted out of the chamber.
Candidates have flocked to Nevada in recent months to tout their efforts to address the issue — Buttigieg toured affordable housing in Reno and Sanders unveiled his housing platform in Las Vegas. Warren's plan recalls a 2008 trip to Nevada at the height of the housing crisis in its first paragraph.
Nevada leads the nation in the "greatest shortage of affordable housing" for the lowest income households. More than 14,000 are estimated to be homeless in southern Nevada, which encompasses Las Vegas, though estimates dipped 9% this year.
In announcing their opposition to the ordinance, many campaigns cited their candidates' record or proposals to address a homeless and housing crisis that has gripped communities throughout the West. In fact, six of those campaigns — Booker, Castro, Harris, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg — have outlined platforms on housing and homelessness.
When it comes to the federal government wielding its spending to push municipalities, several candidates advocate for allowing developers to build more affordable housing to drive down rents or forcing private landlords to accept tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers.
Only Castro specifically pledges to encourage local efforts to end homelessness "criminalization" laws.
"The federal government hands out a lot of money to states and cities and it attaches all kinds of conditions to that money," said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty.
Her group has led a "Housing Not Handcuffs" campaign to track and discourage "criminalization of homelessness" in cities around the country.
"I don't know how arresting someone is going to create housing that's affordable, or create services to be available, or create an emergency shelter spot that doesn't exist. These are the real issues," Foscarinis said of the Las Vegas measure.
The six Democratic candidates vow to boost funding for federal efforts to build affordable housing or subsidize homeless services, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development's "McKinney-Vento" grants.
Last month, Harris introduced a bill calling for massive outlays toward programs to end homelessness. And earlier this year, Warren reintroduced a bill to produce millions of units of affordable housing.
"That's the big problem. That's why so much of the talk on this issue is about money. Because these programs have never been funded to do anywhere near what it would take actually to do the job they're designed for," said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
A handful of the Democratic senators campaigning for president have consulted Berg's group in developing their legislation to address housing and homelessness.
"Only about a quarter of the people who are eligible actually receive help from the housing program, and the other three quarters don't get any help, and that's one of the big reasons why we have so much homelessness and terrible housing," adds Berg.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman partially blames the city's growing homeless population on other jurisdictions. According to reporting by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, she believes other jurisdictions are sending people to the city's Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which, unlike most homeless shelters, accepts people if they are drunk or high, part of a couple or have a pet with them. Those restrictions keep many people on the streets.
Goodman sent a letter in September to her neighbors to deter them from directing more homeless people to the Courtyard, which she said "cannot physically support participants from outside of the city, nor should the City of Las Vegas citizens be expected to bear those additional costs originating from outside of our boundaries." Goodman invited officials to tour the Courtyard and encouraged them to set up their own shelters like it.
The Courtyard, however, is already beyond capacity. It has only 220 sleeping mats but more than 300 people on any given night, according to the Review-Journal.
The law goes into effect Sunday, but the penalties won't be enforced until February. Even then, it may not be enforced because shelter beds are scarce, and the ordinance only applies if beds are available.
The city has just 2,000 shelter beds, according to the Review-Journal, but more than 5,500 homeless people were counted on the streets in Las Vegas during an annual survey in January.
Nationwide, more than half a million people were counted as homeless on a single night in 2018, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Caroline Cournoyer contributed reporting.