Trapped in the System: The Vicious Cycle of Criminalization in Las Vegas

Criminalization and Homelessness in Las Vegas

Anti-homeless laws perpetuate systemic barriers, deepening the crisis of homelessness. From bench spikes to legal penalties, each punitive measure exacerbates negative attitudes toward homelessness, fueling a war on poor people. Despite advocacy efforts, unjust legislation persists, contributing to overcrowded jails and further marginalizing vulnerable populations.


Highlighting the Systemic Barriers Perpetuated by Anti-Homeless Laws in Las Vegas

What exactly is criminalization? Let’s break down this terminology.

Criminalization is, in fact, a lot of different actions that can criminalize a homeless person or the act of being homeless. This action can range from your city government installing spikes on public benches to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them to arresting homeless people for simply being homeless and in public at the same time.

Criminalization is also homeless sweeps. Sometimes, criminalization is dispatching police forces, installing metal detectors, and conducting routine searches inside homeless shelters.

Homeless criminalization is the act of treating a homeless person like a criminal, and the systematic efforts that suggest the act of being poor or homeless is a crime, unlawful, or of moral debate.

Homeless criminalization is abundant. Moreover, one form of criminalization can quickly domino into another. Criminalization is the fuel for the fire. It exaggerates the already negative messages many people believe about homeless people and those living in poverty. It has a ripple effect.

The Domino Effect

How does one act of criminalization lead to another, fueling negative attitudes toward homelessness? Let me give you an example:

Imagine your local train station has a large homeless population. This is expected as underground subway stations are warm, and benches are often abundant. The city attempts to “deal with homelessness” by spiking those benches—now, no one can sit on them. The community now sees these spikes every morning and can no longer sit after their long walk to the train station.

How does this situation process in the minds of these community members? Do they blame the city for installing the spikes? Or do they blame the homeless population for creating this “problem” in the first place? 

Now, let’s say that the homeless population that used to find shelter in that train station moved to the sidewalks, erecting tents. Again, the city attempts to deal with this by sending law enforcement to “sweep” the area, once again displacing that homeless population. Suddenly, the community notices the homeless people frequenting the public parks, accessing bathrooms, the public library, and even the local Starbucks.

Before long, a group of NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) protesters show up in front of the freshly opened homeless shelter down the street.

Now, social workers and public servants have to walk by this every morning on their way to work, and homeless people have to face these protestors every day they walk in and out of the shelter.

Tensions are high, and we know they already are because there’s no easy way to manage the traumatic event that is homelessness. To combat that tension, police officers are installed next to the metal detectors.

All of this, collectively, is criminalization. Each act of criminalization further enforces the negative attitudes against homeless people.

How Criminalization Efforts Are Tantamount to a War on Poor People

In cities like Las Vegas, criminalization efforts are much worse than in my above example. In fact, in Las Vegas, a homeless person can get arrested for simply existing while homeless.

In November 2019, Las Vegas officials approved a law that charges homeless people with a misdemeanor for camping, lodging, sitting, laying down, or sleeping in downtown areas. This can result in both heavy fines, or even jail time.

Homeless advocates, including myself, argue that this is class warfare and no less than a war on poor people.

We cannot wage a war upon homeless people for simply trying to survive. Beyond fines and jail time, there are numerous repercussions for labeling homeless people criminals. It is already difficult for a homeless person to secure housing, employment, or even a bank account. If that homeless person finds housing and begins rebuilding their life, they will have an even harder time securing student loans or accessing public benefits they may need.

The Toll of Anti-Homeless Legislation in Las Vegas and Beyond

Anti-homeless legislation is out of control in Nevada. The state now has the eighth-highest homeless population in the country. The City of Las Vegas Department of Public Safety projects that approximately 1 in every five Nevada inmates is homeless. Furthermore, 93% of homeless inmates were arrested for nonviolent crimes, and 33% of them were arrested for crimes related to homelessness.

According to a member of the Southern Nevada Homeless Continuum of Care board:

“Homelessness was driving the Clark County Detention Center population way up, inflating the numbers to the point of overcrowding. They also revealed that many homeless inmates fit the criteria to be released on house arrest. The only reason they remained in jail was that they had no house in which to be detained.”

If a homeless person is on a housing waitlist in Nevada and is then arrested, they will very likely lose their spot on that waiting list while sitting in jail for 90 days. This is a significant setback, considering a housing waiting list can be up to 1,800 people long. 

Life Under ‘Quality of Life Ordinances’

This isn’t only happening in Las Vegas. Homeless people are often arrested for violating something called a “quality-of-life ordinance.”

In “Why Criminalizing Homelessness Makes Communities Less Safe,” we learn that these laws make it illegal for people enduring homelessness to engage in life-sustaining activities in public. It’s important to note that it’s nearly impossible for a homeless person not to violate these laws because they would simply die otherwise.

Here are a few things homeless people can be arrested for:

  • standing
  • sitting
  • sleeping
  • resting
  • going to the bathroom
  • storing their belongings (such as identification, life-saving medications, food, and clothing)
  • asking money for food

Moreover, studies, both new and old, scholarly and independent, all come to the same conclusion: homeless people are more likely to be victims of crime while simultaneously being more likely to be arrested.

Exploring the Paradox of Homelessness, Victimization, and Criminalization

It is clear that anti-homeless laws are a form of class warfare, and we should not stand for it. We cannot allow our lawmakers to continue waging war on poor people. Remember, the poorest members of our society do not have the same means to protect themselves as we do. We have to stand up for them! We have to say no to acts of criminalization! 

We can end homelessness. We have the means; we have the resources. But we will not get there any faster if unjust anti-homeless laws continue to cause harm and violence to our homeless neighbors.


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Jocelyn Figueroa

     

Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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