New ordinance strikes fear in homeless Las Vegas woman, who feels streets safer than shelters

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LAS VEGAS SUN

Tents line the sidewalk at a homeless encampment on Foremaster Lane between Las Vegas Boulevard North and Main Street.

Tue, Dec 3, 2019 (2 a.m.)

Corie Wilson tries to make a living each day selling handcrafted palm roses on Fremont Street. On a good day, the 43-year-old Wilson can make up to $100 — enough for cigarettes and essentials like food and toiletries, or even a night at a motel if she’s lucky. But it’s still not enough to keep her off the Las Vegas streets.

She shares a small encampment on Bridger Avenue, near the Wee Kirk o’the Heather Wedding Chapel in downtown Las Vegas with her cat, Mooch, and boyfriend, Jim. They alternate between guarding their home and selling roses on Fremont Street. The Wisconsin native tries to keep to herself and stay out of trouble, saying she goes through great lengths to keep both herself and her encampment neat and tidy.

“For more than a month straight, I haven’t been moved because the businesses here know I keep this block clean,” she said. “I’m not a dirty person.”

In November, the Las Vegas City Council voted 5-2 in favor of a controversial ordinance that will ban camping and sleeping throughout downtown and residential areas. Starting Feb. 1, offenders who refuse services or to relocate will face a $1,000 fine or be jailed for up to six months.

The thought process behind the ordinance is to tackle sanitation concerns around the city, as well as connect homeless people to services and shelters like Shade Tree or Catholic Charities.

The ordinance, proposed by Mayor Carolyn Goodman, makes it a misdemeanor to rest, sleep, use a blanket, camp or “lodge” near residential properties and businesses in 12 downtown-area districts, or within 500 feet of a food processing facility. Despite its criticism, Goodman defends the measure, saying that the step is necessary to address the homeless issue in Las Vegas.

“We have had meetings for 20 years on this very subject, and I can assure you, you walk into a room where round tables are set up and you know we’re going to have another meeting and another conversation,” Goodman said during a Nov. 6 meeting.

But Wilson and others are afraid the ordinance will be her one-way ticket to jail. She said she has been waiting for more than two years for affordable housing, about one of 1,800 people in Clark County on the waitlist for placement into homeless and low-income programs like rental assistance.

She knows there are shelters and other services available, but past experiences have made her wary of them. She described instances of being bitten by bedbugs and surrounded by people with poor hygiene.

“I refuse to go into stuff like that,” she said. “That’s not me, that’s gross. I mean, if I get a little dirt on my arms I tell my boyfriend to run to the store to get me water.”

Wilson remembers once waking up in one of the shelters to find a man she didn’t know lying next to her with his arm around her. HELP of Southern Nevada Crisis Team Director Louis Lacey said that stories like Wilson’s are common and that there are a lot of reasons why people will choose the streets over the emergency shelters available downtown.

“It may be because they are geographically tied to an area where they are camping and do not want to uproot themselves and go downtown to the local shelter,” Lacey said. “Another reason is that they may not feel safe in that environment and they may not like sleeping next to people they do not know.”

Lacey said he’s seen a lot of cases in which untreated mental health and drug addiction plays heavily into Southern Nevada’s homeless problem. Lacey, who used to be homeless himself, remembers how his meth addiction used to limit his ability to seek help. He said shame also played a factor. Lacey added that some individuals also feel confined with the rules and regulations that come with shelters like no pet policies or being able to stay with a significant other.

In Wilson’s case, she can’t stomach the thought of being separated from her boyfriend and cat, both of whom offer her emotional and moral support. She said she also has scoliosis and a plethora of physical ailments that limit her mobility.

“There’s no shelter that will take me and my cat,” she said. “He’s my baby, I bottle-fed him for the first six weeks of his life. He brings my temper down, he mellows me out, he talks to me.”

Beds in some of the homeless shelters and facilities also fill up fast, she added, leaving her no choice but to stay on the streets. On any given night, there could be almost 5,500 homeless individuals on the street with 2,000 beds available in addition to a 24-7 courtyard offered by the city. If the shelters are full, the ordinance will not be enforced.

Metro Police Lt. Timothy Hatchett, who heads the agency’s homeless outreach team, understands the criticism around the ordinance. But he views it as more of a policy for strategic outreach, rather than more arrests.

“I’ve reviewed it and sat down with the city,” he said. “It’s not going to be readily or easily enforced because there are so many opportunities to move to another location or seek services. What they are emphasizing is people resistant to treatment. That was the intent behind it.”

But Wilson said she is already feeling the impact of the upcoming ordinance, noting that one officer told her she could no longer keep a tarp over her encampment.

“The last rain was really hard on us,” she said. “I’m still drying out our blankets.”

Hatchett said he is also understanding of the general mistrust homeless have toward law enforcement. But of the 11,000 contacts his team has made with homeless individuals, only two have resulted in arrest.

“The biggest thing is the trust factor,” he said. “My team wears green uniforms — different from the typical khaki worn by the rest of Metro law enforcement — we try to make homeless individuals feel that they are safe. We never force them to go to services.”

Workers from outreach organizations all over Clark County are formulating new strategies to eliminate any barriers that may prevent homeless individuals from getting services.

These efforts are more important now than ever, said Susan Taylor a volunteer with the Nevada Homeless Alliance. Last week, she along with other homeless outreach groups and volunteers gathered at the Champion Center in east Las Vegas to connect more than 2,000 homeless around the valley with services like medical care, legal aid and housing assistance.

“With this upcoming ordinance, people are going to get cited for being homeless,” she said. “That’s a real issue. So this is our way of saying we are going to fight and advocate for these folks who really need help,” she said.

Lacey instructs members of his outreach team to have genuine interactions with people experiencing homelessness, knowing they can easily spot someone who has bad intentions or preconceived judgments.

Someone may reject help 10 or more times, but “we find that 11th meeting they accept services,” Lacey said. “We don’t give up on our clients because we know firsthand how our services can change lives.”

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