Las Vegas Makes It Illegal to Feed Homeless in Parks
By Randal C. Archibold
Las Vegas, July 21 — Gail Sacco pulled green grapes, bread, lunch meat and, of course in this blazing heat, bottles of water from a cardboard box. A dozen homeless people rose from shady spots in the surrounding city park and snatched the handouts from her.
Ms. Sacco, an advocate for the homeless, scoffed at a city ordinance that goes into effect Friday making it illegal to offer so much as a biscuit to a poor person in a city park.
Las Vegas, whose homeless population has doubled in the past decade to about 12,000 people in and around the city, joins several other cities across the country that have adopted or considered ordinances limiting the distribution of charitable meals in parks. Most have restricted the time and place of such handouts, hoping to discourage homeless people from congregating and, in the view of officials, ruining efforts to beautify downtowns and neighborhoods.
But the Las Vegas ordinance is believed to be the first to explicitly make it an offense to feed "the indigent."
The ordinance does not apply to the famous Las Vegas Strip, which lies mostly in unincorporated Clark County, but it demonstrates both the growing pains the city has endured as tourism has boomed, and the steps Las Vegas is taking to regulate where entrenched populations of homeless people can gather. And eat.
"The government here doesn't care about anybody," said one homeless woman, Linda Norman, 55, taking a bottle of water and already perspiring in morning heat approaching 100 degrees at Huntridge Circle Park, a manicured, well-watered three-acre patch of green in a residential area near downtown. "We just want to eat."
Las Vegas officials said the ordinance was not aimed at casual handouts from good Samaritans. Instead, they said it would be enforced against people like Ms. Sacco, whose regular offerings, they said, have lured the homeless to parks and have led to complaints by residents about crime, public drunkenness and litter.
"Families are scared to go to the park," said Gary Reese, the mayor pro tem and a City Council member who represents the area around Huntridge Circle Park. The city, Mr. Reese added, had just spent $1.7 million in landscaping and other improvements there.
"I don’t think anybody in America wants people to starve to death," Mr. Reese said. "But if you want to help somebody, people can go to McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken and give them a meal."
He said that the police would ignore "isolated cases" of violating the ordinance, and predicted that the law would ultimately help the homeless because they would be forced to seek meals at soup kitchens run by social service organizations that could provide other assistance as well.
But Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, said the prohibition would do more harm than good. "Nobody wants the poor and homeless living in public spaces," Ms. Foscarinis said, "but this kind of response is terribly misguided."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which opposed the ordinance, said it was preparing a legal challenge. The group's general counsel, Allen Lichtenstein, called the measure absurd and said it was an unconstitutional infringement on free assembly and other rights.
Mr. Lichtenstein accused Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, who supports the new restriction, of waging a campaign against homeless people, whom the mayor has openly criticized. At a June meeting of the City Council, Mr. Goodman suggested that panhandlers with signs asking for food be sued for "false advertising" because soup kitchens provide free meals. "Some people say I'm the mean mayor," Mr. Goodman acknowledged, but he defended the ordinance as part of the effort to steer the homeless to social service groups, and said the city was taking part in a regional initiative to end homelessness in 10 years.
The ordinance, an amendment to an existing parks statute approved by the Council on July 19, bans the "the providing of food or meals to the indigent for free or for a nominal fee." It goes on to say that "an indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive" public assistance.
Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor, and can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000 or a jail term of up to six months, or both. Diana Paul, a spokeswoman for the city, said the police would begin enforcing it after briefings from city lawyers.
Mr. Lichtenstein said the ordinance allows a picnicker to offer food to a middle-income friend but not to a poor one. "If you have a picnic, are you supposed to have everybody give you a financial statement? This is a clumsy and absurd attempt to make war on poor people."
The ordinance says nothing about offering money to the homeless, and allows offering food to poor people on adjacent sidewalks, something Ms. Sacco said she was considering.
Las Vegas already prohibits 25 or more people from gathering in parks without a permit, and allows the police and city marshals to bar people on the spot for certain periods. The A.C.L.U. has filed a federal lawsuit attacking those restrictions, and Mr. Lichtenstein said he would seek to add this new ordinance to the suit.
Bradford Jerbic, the city attorney, did not reply to a message left at his office. Mr. Reese, the mayor pro tem, said Mr. Jerbic had assured officials that the ordinance was legal and would hold up in court if applied "sensibly."
And Mr. Goodman, a lawyer, said he did not fear a court fight either.
"For 35 years, I represented reputed mobsters and was never afraid to go to court," he said, "“and I am not afraid to go to court against the A.C.L.U."
Some cities, like Fort Myers, Fla., and Santa Monica, Calif., have scaled back restrictions in the face of community objections or lawsuits. The Santa Monica ordinance, which governs public gatherings in parks, faced a federal lawsuit in 2003 by Food Not Bombs, a group that has drawn controversy in several cities for serving regularly scheduled hot meals to the homeless in city parks.
The city eventually eliminated a provision requiring a permit to distribute food on public property, but with the backing of a federal appeals court last month, it requires a permit for giving out hot food to groups of 150 or more. Carol Sobel, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said they still feed the homeless in parks but make sure the groups have fewer than 150 people.
In New York, Angela Allen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services, said: "The city has not created any policies around feeding in the park, but we believe there are better ways of serving the homeless and all of their needs for both food and shelter. No one should ever go hungry."
On Monday, Orlando, Fla., adopted a prohibition on feeding groups of 25 or more people in downtown city parks and other public facilities without a permit.
Social service providers said they had mixed views of the Las Vegas ordinance. Las Vegas has a severe shortage of shelter space for the homeless, but operators of soup kitchens said they could feed many more people than they do.
"We don't want to discourage people to give out food, but it has to be done intelligently and with the right format and in the right area," said Charles Desiderio, a spokesman for the Clark County chapter of the Salvation Army.
Homeless people and Ms. Sacco, a retired restaurant owner who has been serving pots of soup and beans for several years in Huntridge Circle Park, said that it could be difficult to travel to soup kitchens and that the police often forced the homeless from areas where shelters were located.
Huntridge Circle Park is about three miles from most of the soup kitchens downtown, a difficult walk when the weather is hot.
Another reason the homeless do not flock to shelters here, Ms. Sacco acknowledged, is that the chronically mentally ill who make up a sizable part of the homeless population typically resist treatment and services.
"I don’t have no money for a bus," Nalinh Khamsoukthavong, who said he was "about 50," and gave a rambling explanation of his plight that involved promised help from several people, a visit to his native Laos and a series of deceitful bosses. "I have to walk, and I don’t have food."
If this law holds up in court, how long until other towns and cities follow suit?