Nevada camping ban not the answer to homeless 'crisis,' experts say

Shawn McDougall said he served four years in the Army before he became a Marine.

“I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, also Okinawa and Thailand,” McDougall said.

After he returned to the states, he said he found a new calling.

“I became a minister, Pentecostal. The homeless, I felt really bad about it ... I decided in order to reach the homeless, become homeless,” McDougall said.

Shawn McDougall says he's been living on the streets for 11 years.

Shawn McDougall says he's been living on the streets for 11 years. (Ben Brown/Fox News)

But, 11 years later, he found himself unable to get back on his own feet – getting entangled with alcohol and substance abuse.

“I’m trying now to go home,” McDougall told Fox News. “Atlanta.”

Roughly 38,000 veterans experienced homelessness on any given night in January 2018, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Over half a million people were homeless in 2018, with five states making up over half of the homeless population: California (24 percent or 129,972 people); New York (17 percent or 91,897 people); Florida (6 percent or 31,030 people); Texas (5 percent or 25,310 people); and Washington (4 percent or 22,304 people).

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As the nation has continued to grapple with homelessness, officials in Nevada have aimed to curb the number of people living on the streets with a controversial ordinance drawing backlash from activists claiming it will have the exact opposite effect.

Under the ordinance proposed by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, sleeping in public spaces in downtown or residential areas would be a misdemeanor if a bed is available at a nearby shelter – punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 or jail time of up to six months.

“This new ordinance was designed to help direct people to the city’s Courtyard Homeless Resource Center and other existing nonprofit services to connect those in need and help break the cycle of homelessness,” Goodman, a Democrat, said in a statement to Fox News. “The city believes the ordinance will be a benefit to the homeless population, while at the same time protecting the health and safety of the entire community.”

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Activists have said threatening tickets and jail time to force people off the streets won’t address the root of the problem – the lack of affordable housing.

“This proposed ordinance is a bad idea because it will create additional legal and financial barriers for people who are homeless to get off the street, therefore prolonging the length of time that they'll be homeless,” Nevada Homeless Alliance Executive Director Emily Paulsen said. “We need the mayor to refocus her attention on real solutions like building and preserving affordable housing and expanding homeless assistance programs that we know work.”

Nevada has the third-highest rate of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in the country, behind California and Oregon. Out of the roughly 7,544 homeless in Nevada, more than 4,000 are unsheltered, according to 2018 HUD statistics.

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“Las Vegas has the greatest shortage of affordable housing for our lowest-income community members in the entire nation,” Paulsen told Fox News. “We have only 14 units of affordable housing for every 100 extremely low-income renters, whereas the national average is 37.”

Since 2007, homelessness has been on a slow but steady decline in the United States -- until recently. In 2017 and 2018, there was a slight increase in overall homelessness that “can be entirely attributed to an increase in the number of unsheltered individuals,” according to an HUD report.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas Professor Nicholas Barr called the ongoing issue of homelessness in America a “crisis” that could be solved by creating “sustainable long-term housing.”

Barr told Fox News, “I think it’s certainly fair to call it a crisis – if you’re the one experiencing homelessness, that’s a crisis, and the numbers are certainly getting to frighteningly large proportions at this point.”

He said he had legitimate logistical concerns with the proposed ordinance in Las Vegas -- specifically how law enforcement would be able to determine what shelters had open beds in real-time, coupled with the lack of evidence that forcing people to go to shelters could reduce those living on the streets in the long term.

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“There's just no evidence to support the idea that that will solve this problem,” Barr said.

He added, “Giving people permanent supportive housing is a much cheaper alternative than having them be unhoused, using emergency services like ambulance rides or spending a night in jail – those services are very costly. So, it’s actually cheaper to give people their own housing, and we know that when you’re in housing, mental health symptoms go down, substance use, alcohol use goes down as well.”

Proponents of the ordinance, including some local business owners, said the homeless encampments near their stores were causing them to lose customers.

“We still have our regulars who come every day, but at the same time a lot of people, for the most part, are kind of forced away because they’re again very aggressive,” Juice Stars manager Anthony Vasquez said. “They’re getting real mean sometimes when people don’t offer or give them anything.”

The proposed ordinance was similar to legislation in Boise, Idaho, that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently shot down, ruling it violated the Eighth Amendment, the Las Vegas Sun noted. The amendment protects citizens from excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment.

Arnold Stalk, an executive director of Veterans Village, offering emergency and transitional housing to veterans, said the lack of affordable housing in Las Vegas was “dire.”

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“There literally is no affordable housing here in terms of inventory. We're thousands of units behind,” Stalk told Fox News. “The only way we're going to solve the homeless problem in the United States is to build housing. Otherwise, it's all semantics.”

But, creating additional housing would come with a whole new set of challenges.

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“It's difficult to build permanent supportive housing. It's difficult to get developers to chip in to spend that money,” Barr said.

While there might be solutions, there are still obvious challenges to breaking the cycle of poverty. Still, “something has to be done,” said Stalk, who has been working to help the homeless community for more than four decades.