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September 17, 2014

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Sweep of homeless camp in NLV spurs anxiety

Ruby Vetters sat outside her tent Tuesday night and thought about where she would go today, when North Las Vegas Police forced everyone to clear out of the homeless camp she had been living in.

"We're not moving tonight, but I'd like to get out of here before they come," Vetters said. "They always say something that'll hurt your feelings. They may not mean to, but we're in a sensitive condition."

Vetters, 40, sat with a friend overlooking Interstate 15 at the camp at Owens Avenue and Stocker Street.

North Las Vegas Police and city workers cleared the camp today as they have done at that location across the street from the Salvation Army homeless shelter numerous times over the last decade, only to have street people return in a seemingly endless cycle.

Fifteen minutes before the 8 a.m. deadline today, four men sleeping at the site where about 40 people have stayed at any one time, awoke, folded their blankets and walked across the street to the Salvation Army campus.

"I stayed here until yesterday," said a weather-beaten bearded man who identified himself as Gordie and said he has been homeless since 1994. "Last night I slept over there."

He pointed to a sidewalk several hundred feet east of the encampment on Owens Avenue where about a dozen people were wrapped in blankets as authorities cleared the nearby encampment of debris and empty shopping carts.

Asked why he did not seek a bed at the Salvation Army, Gordie said: "Shelters treat grown people like children. That's not right. I've met a lot of intelligent (homeless) people on the streets. But they are people with issues -- gambling, drugs, alcohol additions."

The Salvation Army, a religious organization, has rules of conduct for its homeless clients, including no alcohol or drugs. Some refuse to follow those rules and opt instead to sleep on sidewalks near the Salvation Army so that they can be among the first in line for free meals in the agency's dining room.

On Tuesday night, Vetters had taken inventory of her possessions: tent, sleeping bag, bicycle, two chairs, and a small plastic cooler for the summer. She also had a shopping cart ready to load it all into.

"I don't know what else to do. Tomorrow's coming and I don't know where to go," Vetters said. "To be honest with you, since I became homeless, I gave up on stuff. It makes you depressed, makes you feel like nobody cares or is going to help you."

Shortly before 8 a.m. today, another homeless woman, dressed in pajamas, sweat clothes and slippers, carried a bucket full of cables and wiring to Lakewood Recycling, a business adjacent to the encampment.

She emerged a few minutes later without the materials, picked up her blanket and walked across the street to the Salvation Army campus.

When police and city workers arrived minutes later, just one homeless man wrapped in a blanket was at the site. He was asked to leave by city officials and did so without incident, also walking across the street to the Salvation Army, his dirty blanket tucked under his arm.

Two police officers, wearing protective gloves, went through paperwork left by a former squatter under a sprawling fruitless mulberry tree at the site.

Gary Peck, director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who was observing the sweep this morning, said his organization had brokered an agreement with police and city officials to recover valuables at the site such as paperwork, photos and medicine, and save them for their owners.

"The homeless will have to go to the police station and retrieve their belongings," Peck said, noting that might be intimidating for some of them. "Signs will be posted here to let those who were not here today know what they have to do to get their property."

North Las Vegas Police posted signs April 6 announcing the sweep of the camp -- the second this year.

Police had cleared out a nearby site on Feb. 16, displacing about 100 people, and North Las Vegas authorities were scheduled to do the same at this camp on April 13 but postponed the action for a week.

North Las Vegas Police spokesman Tim Bedwell said this morning's sweep had been delayed to give service providers more time to coordinate relief for the homeless. He expected this morning's sweep would be peaceful.

"It's not as confrontational as a lot of people think it is," Bedwell said. "We're pretty patient with them."

He said the sweep is necessary because the camp, which occupies public and private land, has become a safety and health hazard.

At the camp Tuesday, trash was piled in heaps. The nearest available restrooms are around the corner at Salvation Army Homeless Services.

North Las Vegas city officials will clean up the camp, remove graffiti, hold possessions of value for one month, and discard everything else.

Bedwell said homeless advocates have visited the camp to help people find assistance.

But, he added, "Ultimately, we can't make them accept assistance."

And, homeless advocates say, some people can't qualify for assistance.

The sweep coincides with the launch of a two-month, multi-agency homeless outreach effort -- also set to start today -- nearly two miles away on Wilson Avenue behind the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.

Homeless advocate Linda Lera-Randle El, executive director of Straight from the Streets, will work the outreach and watch over the sweep.

She said the timing will hopefully help people displaced from the camp find help at the outreach. She also said it highlights the severity of the local homeless problem.

"We've been Band-Aiding and hiding so much of this for so long that it's no longer a secret," Lera-Randle El said. "That's how critical the homeless situation has gotten in certain parts of Clark County."

She said it accomplishes nothing to move and chase the homeless, especially the chronically homeless, without leading them to long-term assistance.

"These are not ping-pong balls," she said.

One of the men who had been living at the encampment that was cleared out this morning said the camp is a health hazard because there are no toilets orgarbage cans available. But, he added, it had also become a community.

"The people out here are pretty peaceful. They learn to break bread and be homeless together," 53-year-old Paul said. He declined to provide his last name.

He said he thinks he knows why the city and state do not do more for the homeless.

"They really don't want the homeless in town," Paul said. "This is a gambling town."

But, he and other street people predicted, this morning won't mark the last time police and city officials will have to deal with an encampment of homeless people at Stocker and Owens.

"Where else are we going to go?" Gordie said.

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