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All bets off on the homeless

Las Vegas' mayor, intent on revitalizing a rapidly growing domain, keeps trying ways to remove vagrants. His targets worry that he'll succeed.

December 22, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — THE king of Las Vegas sat on his throne, a wood 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 souls.

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

In this land of twinkling casinos and quick riches, Las Vegas is struggling to solve -- once and for all -- its most unglamorous problem. During Goodman's watch, 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 A ban on sleeping within 500 feet of feces was repealed in September, weeks after it was adopted.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 stabbed another to death.

"The city is endlessly playing a game of whack-a-mole," said Lee Rowland, an attorney for the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued last month to overturn the anti-feeding ordinance. "Anytime a population of homeless people becomes visible, they'll just shut it down."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas homeless: An article in Friday's Section A about Las Vegas' crackdown on its homeless population said that more than 5,000 people moved to the city each month. In fact, 5,000 people move to the Las Vegas Valley each month, a region of that encompasses several cities, including Las Vegas.

Homeless advocates say conditions for the most destitute here are worse than in Los Angeles, where officials in recent years have tried to remove homeless encampments in skid row downtown.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 -- 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 outside the city limits. Goodman is betting his legacy on the revitalization of his city where 16,800 high-rise apartments and condominiums 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 Dumpsters 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 last decade, with new arrivals and with poor residents being 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 curled up in sleeping bags on the grass or slept on red gravel.

"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."

IN the park beneath the mayor's office, Patricia White sat on a concrete bench eating pasta, bread and bananas donated by a charity. About three dozen homeless people lounged nearby. One read a book, another made roses out of palm fronds.

"He wants the homeless out of town," White said, nodding toward City Hall, then cursing the mayor. White, 54, has been homeless for five months. She stopped working after she fell 15 feet off a building during a roofing job. She gambled away the last of her savings.

Now, White sleeps outdoors with two friends, though she said she doesn't sleep in Frank Wright Plaza because of the sprinklers. They wake up the homeless and soak their clothes. White's friend Walter Overton, 54, is convinced it's the mayor's doing.

"You lay in the grass and the sprinklers come on," Overton said. "His office is right up there," he added, pointing to the mayor's headquarters. "He may have a button."

So far, White has been able to avoid homeless sweeps at the secret spot where she sleeps with her friends. If the police find their home, she said, it will be hard to find another place.

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