Thursday, April 10, 2003 | 11:13 a.m.
A study released today by the nation's oldest and largest homeless advocacy group ranked Las Vegas as the second most dangerous city nationwide for homeless people.
According to the report, 13 violent crimes against homeless people occurred in Las Vegas during the four-year period studied, including four homicides -- ranking the city second only to Denver. The report looks only at crimes committed by people who are not homeless, not at homeless-on- homeless crime.
The results and the methods used to reach them caused concern among city officials and those who work with the homeless.
"I'm concerned any time we as a city have a high ranking on another one of these negative lists because I don't think this shows most of the community, who are striving for something better," said Linda Lera-Randle El, executive director for Straight From the Streets, a nonprofit that works with the homeless.
The report, titled "Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes and Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness 1999-2002," was prepared by the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. It looks at homicides and other violent crimes against the homeless in 98 cities nationwide.
Sheriff Bill Young disagreed with the report's finding.
"Portraying Las Vegas as a place where the local citizenry is committing crimes against the homeless is totally wrong," he said.
"Actually, I have the feeling that we're one of the most progressive cities in the nation when it comes to law enforcement and the homeless."
But Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the coalition and one of the report's authors, said that crimes against the homeless are on the rise, and a federal study on the issue is needed to foster a better understanding of the problem.
"Right now we don't know how many of the crimes are hate crimes because many of the perpetrators aren't interviewed," he said.
The coalition would also like to see hate-crime legislation now before Congress include homeless people as a protected group. Stoops said that would help deter crime, as well as provide more reliable, ongoing data.
Several officials criticized the data the report was based on, noting it was in part drawn from media accounts.
"The city's concern is how did they get their information," Elaine Sanchez, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's spokeswoman, said. "You can't have research based on media reports."
Young said that a more careful look at data would show that more crimes against the homeless are committed by the homeless themselves -- a subject not examined by the report.
He said that two of the four homicides in Las Vegas that the report mentions could have been committed by homeless people, according to ongoing investigations.
During the same period, five other homeless people were killed by other homeless people, he said.
"This study doesn't deal with the realities on the street," he said.
But Stoops said that nearly two-thirds of the known perpetrators of the crimes studied for his report were youths under 20, many of whom acted in groups. This included an April 2001 Las Vegas incident where a group of teenagers beat a 50-year-old homeless man named Russell Frasher and left him to die in a vacant lot.
"We want to draw attention to how we go about educating people, especially young people, about the homeless," he said.
Stoops also said that Goodman's way of talking about the homeless has not helped. He said the mayor's 2002 state of the city speech was an example -- Goodman said the homeless were "raping people, robbing people and ... killing their own."
Stoops said this sort of language reinforces some people's stereotypes about the homeless.
"Somebody somewhere can take the mayor's words in a way other than what he intended ... (and) his remarks have been among the most hateful and stereotypical I have come across in a public official," he said.
Comments such as those made in the state of the city speech and high-profile police actions against homeless camps in March 2002 caused many homeless advocates to question Goodman's policies on the issue.
But Sanchez said the mayor "has always been frank about the homeless."
"He will help those who are willing to help themselves or get help for those who are mentally ill but he cannot help those who do not want to be helped," she said.
Gus Ramos, deputy executive director for the Clark County Housing Authority and president of the Southern Nevada Homeless Coalition, said that a federal study of crimes against the homeless would be useful.
"I think it's important to find out why these crimes are happening," he said. "Obviously the fact that they're homeless puts them at risk -- the streets are no place for people to live.
"But doing a study would mean that we could dedicate resources to doing something about the causes of these crimes."
Lera-Randle El said the crimes against the homeless studied by the report are only part of a larger picture.
Last year at least 47 homeless people died on the streets in Southern Nevada, she said, many of them due to exposure, drug addiction and suicide.
"So it would seem a more useful approach would be to focus on the causes and solutions to homelessness in general," she said.
Meanwhile, independent of the report, its methods or its conclusions, homeless men and women got set Wednesday afternoon for another night on the streets.
Les Dayton, a man who has lived on the streets and in shelters in Las Vegas and other cities since the 1970s, said he was sure that Las Vegas was unsafe for the homeless, having seen groups of kids throw rocks and bottles, as well as other homeless men all too ready to walk off with someone else's stuff.
Dayton, who was in line for dinner at Catholic Charities downtown, he said he relies on his intuition to stay safe on the streets -- "sort of like when I worked 100 feet down in the mines and knew when something was going to happen and it was better not to go to work that day."
"You just learn how to take care of yourself," he said.