Vegas stacks deck against the homeless

`They're interfering with quality of life,' says mayor behind campaign to oust them

December 22, 2006|By Erika Hayasaki | Erika Hayasaki,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAS VEGAS -- The king of Las Vegas sat in his throne, a wooden and leather replica of one that belonged to a mid-19th-century Bavarian king. Resting his hand on the lion's head carved into its arm, Mayor Oscar Goodman talked of his empire's poorest.

"I love the homeless," said Goodman, who once proposed shipping them to an abandoned prison 30 miles away. "Unfortunately," the former Mafia defense lawyer said, "they're really interfering with the quality of life."

In this land of glitzy casinos and quick riches, Las Vegas is struggling to solve its most unglamorous problem once and for all. Under Goodman, the city has tried what some say are among the country's harshest tactics against the homeless, including a short-lived city ordinance that outlawed feeding them in parks.

A ban on sleeping within 500 feet of feces was repealed in September, weeks after it was adopted. Last month, Goodman shut down a park after a homeless man fatally stabbed another.

"The city is endlessly playing a game of whack-a-mole," said Lee Rowland, an attorney for the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, whose suit led last month to overturning the no-feeding ordinance. "Any time a population of homeless people becomes visible, they'll just shut it down."

Homeless advocates say conditions here are worse than in Los Angeles, where officials in recent years have tried to remove homeless encampments in the downtown Skid Row area. The Los Angeles plan was scaled back this year after a federal appeals court ruled that police could not arrest people for sitting or sleeping on public sidewalks. A 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Las Vegas as the fifth "meanest" city to the homeless, worse than Los Angeles and New York. The meanest was Sarasota, Fla.

The 6-foot-tall throne - a gift, like the red crown and scepter sitting by his desk at City Hall - suits Goodman's majestic image of himself and his city of 590,000. It is one of the fastest growing in the nation, with more than 5,000 people arriving each month. He wore his crown to a recent City Hall Christmas party, and his staff has been known to call him king.

While Goodman, 67, is the mayor of Las Vegas, the famous casino-lined strip - a half-mile from downtown - is not part of his domain. Goodman is betting his legacy on the revitalization of his city where 16,800 Manhattan-style condominium high-rise apartments are replacing run-down buildings. Trendy lounges and sidewalk cafes are on the way.

Not included in the mayor's blueprint are the people who pick through trash and panhandle for change - then often bet it at a casino, "thinking they will hit a royal flush," Goodman said. A 2005 survey by Nevada researchers counted about 13,000 homeless in Las Vegas. The population has doubled over the past decade with new arrivals and as poor residents have been priced out of the housing market.

Goodman's 10th-floor office at City Hall downtown overlooks several half-built condos and a public park - Frank Wright Plaza - where on a recent afternoon two dozen homeless people slept on red gravel and snuggled in sleeping bags on the grass.

"They ruined the park," said Goodman, who came up with the idea to build it. "That park was supposed to be an urban boutique park, and now people are scared to go down there."

There's plenty of room for the homeless in the shelters clustered a few miles from downtown, Goodman said, but they refuse to go. Long before the recent measures failed, he formed a coalition of city officials to work on getting them off the streets. He even said he would buy them bus tickets to leave the state.

"They say I'm a bad guy because I don't want these folks wandering around neighborhoods," Goodman said. "If it comes down to a choice between helping my good neighbors or helping the homeless, I choose my good neighbors."

Down the street from City Hall, a homeless woman pressed her nose against the window of the newly opened Potato Valley cafe. As customers lunched, owner Ty Weinert, 31, recognized the woman peering inside. Sometimes she comes inside for a cup of coffee. On this afternoon, the woman shuffled to the back of the restaurant to dig through the trash.

Weinert's restaurant, in a new 51-unit apartment building, was one of the first projects in the mayor's revitalization plan. Across the street from a pawn shop and a wedding chapel, the restaurant sits next to a condo that is under construction. Alongside menus, Weinert displayed copies of Vurb, a magazine advertising art studios and lofts with a headline that reads "Welcome to a more fabulous Las Vegas."

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