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Soup kitchen criminals

July 29, 2006

WHAT'S THE WEIRDEST WAY to lose $1,000 in Vegas? Until Thursday, that was a question -- a challenge, really -- with unlimited answers. Play a hand of baccarat, rent a swanky poolside cabana or maybe gawk at fellow gawkers at one of those nightclubs Paris Hilton frequents. But now you can cough up a grand, or spend six months in jail, for the sin of feeding the homeless.

Las Vegas this week became the first major city in the United States to make helping the indigent a jailable offense. And city officials added insult to idiocy by claiming that the ban is actually intended to improve the lot of those without shelter.

The city comedians once called "Lost Wages" has seen its homeless population double in the past decade to about 12,000. Because the city, like Los Angeles, lacks services, volunteers feed hundreds of homeless each day in parks, making them magnets for permanent homeless camps. As a result, local families and residents are nonexistent in certain neighborhood parks. The city says it would prefer if the homeless ate at shelters, where they can also get services such as medical care and housing assistance.

It's true that giving handouts without addressing the root causes of why people are living on the streets doesn't do much to alleviate the problem. And we empathize with efforts, whether in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, to balance the needs of the desperate with the reasonable expectations of taxpayers to feel safe and happy in their public spaces. Cities such as Santa Monica have dealt with these tensions by, for instance, requiring a permit for publicly giving out food to groups of 150 or more.

But criminalizing acts of charity makes no sense, and not just because of the principle involved. Enforcement is an issue too -- under the law, it's a crime only if you hand a sandwich to someone whom "a reasonable, ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive assistance." But what does that mean? "Certain truths are self-evident," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman told reporters this week. "You know who's homeless."

Goodman once famously said the best way to deal with the homeless might be to push them into the Pacific Ocean. Last month, the city began placing more mentally ill homeless people in hospitals for 72-hour evaluations whether they wanted to go or not, raising an outcry from civil liberties groups. Officials now acknowledge there aren't enough beds at local mental hospitals to treat everyone.

There are, of course, more effective ways to help the homeless than putting Samaritans in the slammer. Maybe if the mayor and other city leaders spent a day or two at city parks, watching the alleged criminal element serve up soup, it might remind them that poor people are constituents too.

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