For years, rare has been the day I take an early morning walk with the dog from the New To Las Vegas world headquarters without encountering homeless folks.
Sometimes, it’s a person sleeping alone on a sidewalk, with or without a covering. Sometimes, it’s someone seeking protection under an awning of a shuttered Bank of America branch. Sometimes, as seen in the nearby photo, it’s a growing encampment in a vacant lot.
Sometimes, it’s all three.
This comes to mind as I ponder the proposed “Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights” recently introduced in the Nevada Legislature by six Democratic senators. The bill has created quite the controversy.
The divisions are predictable and loud, as they somewhat mirror our country’s great social split. Democrats, liberals and social workers seem generally for the legislation, or some version of it. Republicans, conservatives, law enforcement and business interests appear pretty much against it, or most of it.
As introduced, Senate Bill 142 is only two pages long. “A person experiencing homelessness is entitled to the same rights, privileges and benefits afforded to a resident of this State who is not experiencing homelessness,” it loftily begins. The bill then lists what that entails. Among the listed rights:
Be treated with fairness and respect for his or her privacy and dignity.
Be free from intimidation, harassment and abuse.
Use and move freely in or on public places, including, without limitation, public sidewalks, government buildings, public parks and public transportation vehicles.
The law would acknowledge the right of government to pass laws that might affect homeless, like, perhaps, prohibiting overnight sleeping in parks. One provision of the original bill would allow a homeless person to file a civil lawsuit for a perceived violation of the act. But after a humongous outcry from business interests, sponsors said that would be dropped.
I’d say the bill stands almost no chance of becoming law. Although SB 142 might pass the Legislature–Democrats have large majorities in both houses–it’s doubtful that Joe Lombardo, the conservative law-and-order Republican ex-Clark County sheriff just elected governor, would sign it. And the Democrats don’t have enough votes in the Senate to override a veto.
To me, the sad part is that even if enacted, the law wouldn’t do anything to reduce homelessness, which is a problem in Las Vegas as it is in other places. Actually, for a low-tax, minimal government state that is pretty cheap in general when it comes to social services, Nevada does try. While authorities endeavor to reduce the visibility of homeless along that economic golden goose tourist magnet known as the Las Vegas Strip, I don’t get a sense they’re generally hassled elsewhere in the area. There is a fair amount of outreach, although much of it comes from private sources.
The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Dallas Harris, a Democratic lawyer from Las Vegas who is part of the party leadership, insisted the legislation would not change any current laws. She said it would just be an aspirational “statement.”
But then there’s another introduced bill that would go much farther. Senate Bill 155, sponsored solely by James Ohrenschall, a Democratic public defender from Las Vegas, would flat out void local laws prohibiting homeless from living in public parks or parked vehicles. This measure hasn’t gotten as much attention, perhaps because it seems so out there.
One expressed fear by opponents of homeless rights legislation here is that it somehow would turn Las Vegas and Nevada into another California. Comparing things unfavorably to the Golden State, despite its towering economy, is a traditional bogeyman in the Silver State, and an established trope on the conservative editorial pages of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. As someone who lived seven years in California, I find this a tad hypocritical. After all, Las Vegas is perfectly happy to pocket the money lost by visiting Californian gamblers, who probably account for 30% of all Las Vegas wagering. Without a California, there probably wouldn’t be a Nevada, whose economy is best described as resting utterly on the frailties of human nature.
Homeless issues in Los Angeles and San Francisco certainly have been in the news. And, as I described at the top of this post, there are a notable number of homeless in Las Vegas. But it’s a whole lesser magnitude here. Last year, the annual official one-day count of homeless in Clark County was 5,645. With a county population of 2.3 million, that is one homeless out of every 407 residents. The same numbers for Los Angeles County were 69,144 and 9.8 million. That’s one homeless out of every 141 residents, nearly three times the per-capita homeless rate found here.
Still, Las Vegas does have problems. On one especially tragic occasion, just before dawn on winter’s first day a few years ago, I encountered on my daily constitutional the body of a murdered homeless man, which I reported to authorities. His name was Ralph Franzello, 63, and he had been living on the streets for years. His killer, Jarrid Johnson, then 25, who had been temporarily homeless himself due to his own domestic violence, later confessed and pleaded guilty but mentally ill to second degree murder. I attended his sentencing. Johnson is now serving what likely will be 18 years at High Desert State Prison in rural Clark County.
At least he has a home–sort of.