Democratic contenders come out against Las Vegas homeless camping ordinance

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Las Vegas Weekly Staff / Miranda Alam

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro speaks during a protest in response to a proposed city ordinance outside of Las Vegas City Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. The proposed ordinance would make homeless encampments illegal if beds are available through the city or nonprofit organizations. Miranda Alam/Special to the Sun

Published Tue, Nov 5, 2019 (3:37 p.m.)

Updated Tue, Nov 5, 2019 (5:13 p.m.)

As the Las Vegas City Council prepares to discuss a controversial ordinance that would make it illegal to camp or sleep in public areas when beds are available at established homeless shelters, some heavy political hitters have taken notice.

Multiple Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the proposed ordinance, which is scheduled for a public hearing at Wednesday's council meeting that begins at 9 a.m. at City Hall, with many calling it a criminalization of homelessness.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and businessman Tom Steyer have all come out against the ordinance.

Biden tweeted his opposition Tuesday, drawing a contrast to what he said was accomplished during his time as vice president.

“Proud to stand with folks in Las Vegas fighting against a proposed ordinance that effectively criminalizes homelessness,” he tweeted. “Like we did in the Obama-Biden administration, we should focus on providing housing first and work to find long-term solutions to end homelessness.”

“These measures disproportionately harm communities of color and LGBTQ+ people, who as a result become further entangled in the justice system and face more barriers to finding supportive housing,” Warren said in a statement. “We must focus on investing in affordable housing and supporting programs that will connect people experiencing homelessness with the tools and services they need to get back on their feet.”

Sanders, in his statement, bemoaned the lack of affordable housing, nationwide and in Nevada.

“Homelessness isn’t a crime, it’s a symptom of the greed that is destroying housing in America,” he said. “We are in the middle of a national housing crisis, with Nevada having the greatest shortage of affordable housing for the lowest income earners, while the wealthiest have it all.”

Steyer, in his criticism of the measure, sounded a call for more mental health services and affordable housing.

“Rather than levy hefty fines or force people into overpacked jails, elected leaders across all levels of government should ensure access to mental health services and embrace a housing-first approach that gets people off the street and into permanent housing,” he said. “We must also address the affordable housing crisis plaguing cities across the country as wages for the average worker stagnate.”

Castro, who took part in a protest outside Las Vegas City Hall when the ordinance was first introduced and has made combating homelessness a large part of his campaign, said the council should kill the proposal.

Booker said in a release that the council should “listen to the community.”

“We shouldn't criminalize homelessness,” he said. “We should be focused on investing in evidence-based programs and addressing the affordable housing crisis.”

Harris tweeted that “criminalizing the homeless is not the answer,” and said that the federal government should partner with communities to combat homelessness.

Dan Lee, an assistant professor of political science at UNLV, said that it was somewhat common for national candidates to take stands on local issues, as they can use those positions to highlight how their platform could help. For example, he said, candidates could use their position on the homeless ordinance to highlight their positions on issues like health care or the minimum wage.

“In that way, it’s pretty common to try to connect with voters on issues that are specific to their state or to their city but then the candidate using that to then showcase their own policy platform,” he said.

Lee said that candidates who spoke out on a local issue could create a domino effect in that other candidates would follow due to a concern about public perception.

Silence, he said, can say something as well.

“Now it’s kind of like, OK, if someone doesn’t speak out against it, are they implicitly supporting this ordinance? Especially (once) the leading candidates speak out against it, it kind of forces the hand for the other candidates to … make some sort of statement, take some sort of position on that issue,” he said.

City officials said they're trying to stem complaints and compel street-dwellers to seek help as part of a broader strategy to protect the homeless and the public, safeguard business interests and address a public health crisis. Mayor Carolyn Goodman has stated her support for the measure. She is not alone on the council.

"This ordinance is not to put folks in jail," said Councilwoman Victoria Seaman, who noted that the city's downtown Courtyard Homeless Resource Center offered much-needed assistance. "It's to help them get them where they need to go and not have the encroachment upon businesses where you have folks sleeping in doorways."

The Associated Press Contributed to this report.

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