- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2002

LAS VEGAS (AP) Tawana James was among the last of 175 squatters forced to leave when police arrived to clear a homeless settlement.

The 27-year-old Chicago native picked up her stuff, moved about a half-mile away and pitched her makeshift home of blankets and plastic sheeting on property owned by the state.

"But it's just for a couple of days," she said. "Then what?"

Miss James and others have few answers as they find themselves in the middle of the long-running battle over a growing homeless population in Las Vegas, a city known better for its high rollers than homeless.

"There is no endgame," Mayor Oscar Goodman said. "The homeless say they eat pretty good here and that nobody bothers them. Well, I'm going to bother them."

Mr. Goodman said Monday that because accumulated filth and human waste threatened to contaminate deliveries to a nearby dairy plant, the city had to move Miss James and others off a sidewalk where they set up camp after the last large-scale city sweep in May.

"Do you eat ice cream? Cottage cheese? Do you take milk in your coffee? We had an immediate health problem that would undermine this city, this county and this state," Mr. Goodman said.

The latest sweep involved an encampment at Foremaster Lane and Main Street, just north of downtown and far from where tourists stroll and gamble on the Strip.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday accused Mr. Goodman and Las Vegas of subtly denying services and harassing the homeless to force them to leave town.

"This is the ugly underside of Las Vegas that our leaders don't want the rest of the world to see," said Gary Peck, executive director of the local ACLU chapter. "It is clear there are more homeless people than the number of beds available, by a lot."

Mr. Peck, ACLU lawyer Allen Lichtenstein and Mr. Lichtenstein's 16-year-old daughter received trespassing warnings during Sunday's pre-dawn sweeps when they tried to intervene.

"If the public doesn't care, they'll get away with it," said Mr. Lichtenstein, who lost a bid Friday for a federal court injunction stopping the sweep.

Mr. Goodman guaranteed that any homeless person wanting a bed and help to clean up his life could get it. He called the sweep "a stopgap measure" until recommendations from an interagency Homeless Task Force can be implemented.

A 1999 University of Nevada at Las Vegas study found 6,700 homeless persons in the Las Vegas area, but only 1,212 shelter beds.

Since then, one shelter closed for construction but is expected to open with 900 beds in July. Others have cut services.

"There's not enough beds in this town for the homeless people," said Terry Ryder, president of the Key Foundation, a veterans' assistance program.

The mayor reported that police handed out 15 vouchers Sunday night to people at the former encampment, but none of those displaced apparently went to a homeless-services tent that houses 250 persons. A city survey found 33 open beds at a women-only shelter and 24 open beds at a $5-per-night Catholic Charities shelter.

Last summer, a federal judge allowed police to evict dozens of homeless in a tent city near the Union Pacific tracks in north Las Vegas. The City Council also agreed to beef up police patrols in the area.

Dave Coon, vice president at Anderson Dairy Inc., southern Nevada's only milk processing plant, praised Mr. Goodman and local City Councilman Lawrence Weekly for intervening to avert contamination or an accident.

"We think they did the right thing," Mr. Coon said. "Obviously we're concerned about sanitation in our industry. [The homeless] were using the sidewalks as a public bathroom. And we are very fortunate no one was harmed by one of our large dairy tankers."


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