In Las Vegas, feeding the homeless is illegal

July 28, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LAS VEGAS -- Gail Sacco pulled green grapes, bread, lunch meat and, in the blazing desert 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 Sacco.

With that act of giving, Sacco, an advocate for the homeless, scoffed at a city ordinance that goes into effect today making it illegal to offer so much as a biscuit to a poor person in a city park.

Las Vegas, where the homeless population has doubled in the past decade to about 12,000 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 placed restrictions on the time and location of such handouts, hoping to discourage homeless people from congregating and, in the view of officials, ruining efforts to beautify downtowns and neighborhoods.

The Las Vegas ordinance is thought to be the first to explicitly make it an offense to feed "the indigent."

The ordinance, which does not apply to the Las Vegas Strip in unincorporated Clark County, demonstrates the city's growing pains as tourism has boomed and the steps Las Vegas is taking to regulate where homeless people can gather and eat.

"The government here doesn't care about anybody," Linda Norman, 55, a homeless woman, said as she accepted a bottle of water on a recent morning in the near-100-degree morning heat at Huntridge Circle Park, a well-manicured, well-watered 3-acre patch of green in a residential area near downtown. "We just want to eat."

Las Vegas officials said the ordinance is not aimed at casual handouts from Good Samaritans. Instead, they said, it will be enforced against people such as Sacco, whose regular offerings, they said, have lured the homeless to parks and have led to complaints from 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, Reese said, just spent $1.7 million in landscaping and other improvements there.

"I don't think anybody in America wants people to starve to death," 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 the police will ignore "isolated" violations of the ordinance and predicted that the law will help the homeless because they will be forced to seek meals at soup kitchens run by social service organizations that could also provide other assistance.

Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, said the prohibition will do more harm than good.

"Nobody wants the poor and homeless living in public," Foscarinis said, "but this kind of response is terribly misguided."

ACLU challenge

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which opposed the ordinance, said it is preparing a legal challenge. The ACLU's general counsel, Allen Lichtenstein, called the measure absurd and said it is an unconstitutional infringement on free assembly and other rights.

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, 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," said Goodman, who defended the ordinance as part of an effort to steer the homeless to social service groups. The city is taking part in a regional initiative to end homelessness in 10 years, he said.

The ordinance approved July 19, bans "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.

Misdemeanor

Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, a jail term of up to six months or both. Diana Paul, a city spokeswoman, said police will begin enforcing it after briefings from city lawyers.

Bradford Jerbic, the city attorney, did not return a message left at his office. Reese, the mayor pro tem, said Jerbic had assured officials that the ordinance was legal and would hold up in court if applied "sensibly."

Some cities, including Fort Myers, Fla., have scaled back restrictions in the face of community objections or lawsuits. One such suit was filed in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2003 by Food Not Bombs, which has served regularly scheduled meals to the homeless in parks in several cities.

Santa Monica eventually eliminated a provision enacted a few years before that required a permit to distribute food on public property, but it kept a requirement, upheld last month by a federal appeals court, requiring a permit to hand out hot food to groups of 150 or more.

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