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Closer to Home: How Recent Courtroom News May Affect Las Vegas’ Fight Over Homelessness

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear an appeal on an Idaho case regarding homeless encampments that several California municipalities fought. Now, this case may very well have huge implications right here in Nevada.

Sound familiar yet? Of course, we need to talk about Las Vegas’ new ordinances. However, we shouldn’t stop there. The ordinances will likely be decided in court, but long-term solutions may need to happen much closer to home.

Remember when the Las Vegas City Council suddenly made national news?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last month, the Las Vegas City Council voted 5-2 to pass an ordinance to ban and criminalize streetside camping in most Downtown neighborhoods. And after passing the first ordinance, the Las Vegas City Council passed a second ordinance to further restrict sleeping on sidewalks when street sweepers are scheduled to clean them.

Thus far, anti-camping/sleeping ordinance proponents have argued that these ordinances are about maintaining clean and healthy neighborhoods. Opponents, however, see ulterior motives with city leaders coordinating with a certain “business community” alliance to craft these ordinances and target enforcement in the most gentrified parts of Downtown. 

Meanwhile, some in Clark County Government Center fear these ordinances will result in a “chilling effect” that will deter, rather than encourage, those in need to seek help. On that note, help may not be on the way for everyone who needs it, as Nevada’s social safety net remains overworked and underfunded. And as we’ve learned from the aftermath of a Nevada Supreme Court ruling and another controversial Las Vegas city ordinance on domestic violence, the state doesn’t always rush to address public health crises like it does for billionaires demanding tax subsidies for “the next big thing”.

Why is the U.S. Supreme Court now involved in this?
Photo by Jeff Kubina, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

The City of Boise, Idaho, had been enforcing its 1922 ordinance banning sleeping in public spaces to crack down on homeless encampments, but the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals overturned the ordinance in September 2018. In their ruling, the Ninth Circuit majority declared the ordinance unconstitutional and argued that subjecting people to criminal punishment when they have nowhere else to sleep amounts to the “very cruel and unusual punishment” that the Eighth Amendment forbids.

Since the Ninth Circuit covers much of the American West, including all the Pacific Coast states, this ruling triggered quite the chain reaction in California. As I noted last month, Orange County and multiple cities there settled a lawsuit pertaining to their anti-homeless encampment laws, though they still face challenges ahead in actually providing new shelter space as the settlement stipulates. And other major urban areas, from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond, have had to come to terms with the reality that they can’t just arrest their way to “clean, safe streets”.

And yet, the state’s most populous city, Los Angeles, joined Boise and other West Coast cities in appealing the Ninth Circuit ruling. Unfortunately for them the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, as at least six Justices declined to even hear the case next year. That means the Ninth’s ruling stands, Boise can not enforce its anti-encampment ordinance, California municipalities can not enforce their respective anti-encampment ordinances… And Las Vegas is about to have an even rougher ride in court.

So what now?
Photo by Andrew Davey

While Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, Council Member Michele Fiore, and other proponents of the new anti-homeless encampment ordinances have claimed they’re not out to criminalize homelessness, Boise and Los Angeles made the same argument in federal court. The Ninth Circuit already rejected that argument, and the U.S. Supreme Court won’t even hear it this term or next. At the very least, this is a boon for the anti-encampment ordinance opponents who are promising to fight the ordinances in court.

Should the federal courts strike down Las Vegas’ ordinances, what’s next? Congress will likely approve $2.8 billion in federal housing aid before they adjourn for the winter holidays. It’s a 6% increase over last year’s spending, but it’s just a little higher than the 4.4% average rent increase in the Las Vegas region in 2018. Meanwhile at the state level, we’ll have to wait until 2021 to see whether the Nevada Legislature and Governor Steve Sisolak (D) are willing to invest more state resources into fixing the housing affordability crisis at the heart of this debate over homeless encampments.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Even as we’re seeing more signs suggesting Las Vegas’ piping hot housing market may be cooling down, a 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition noted that our market only has about 10 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters. And this crisis may be even worse in Reno, as mortgage information site Freeandclear ranked Washoe County as the 66th least affordable county to live in the entire nation.

So regardless of what the courts decide on Las Vegas’ anti-homeless encampment ordinances, this issue isn’t going away any time soon. Now that we’re about to enter into an extra-special election year featuring candidates and pundits screaming about how much “We Matter!”, this serves as another reminder of the issues and policies that matter in neighborhoods and communities near and far.

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