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August 30, 2014

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Law enforcement:

Metro rethinks ‘Don’t feed homeless’

Citations of Samaritans will end, but practice leaves a bad taste

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Should good Samaritans be issued a citation for feeding the homeless along Foremaster Lane?

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Homeless advocates say police handed them this flier that told people what they should and should not do if they want to "help end homelessness in our community."

Homeless Camp

A homeless man camps with others inside tents along Foremaster Lane between Las Vegas Boulevard North and Main Street in Las Vegas on Thursday, April 2, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Homeless corridor along Foremaster

Geoff Sample and other members of the Green Valley Christian Center have been turning their faith into action once a month for five years by feeding the homeless.

But on March 15, when Sample and about 15 others took sandwiches to the string of tents on Foremaster Lane at Main Street, they were met by police.

“Three steps out of our vehicles,” Sample said, “a Metro officer comes over, writes down our license plates and says, ‘I’m going to write you a warning ... This is a new enforcement policy.’ ” When Sample asked the officer whether his group could go somewhere else with the sandwiches, the officer told them they would be “written up” anywhere else as well.

Sample didn’t know it at the time, but Metro officers had recently begun driving away church groups and others who try to give food, clothes and other donations to homeless people in the Foremaster area. Police have threatened to cite good Samaritans for any possible violation, such as parking in a no-parking zone.

Deputy Chief Gary Schofield said he found out about this shortly after Sample’s run-in with the officer. Schofield attempted to find out who came up with the policy and how many warnings or citations officers had issued.

As of Monday, he had no answers but was clear on one thing: He had dumped the policy.

“When I found out about it, I said, ‘Are we really giving warning citations to churches?’ ... I don’t think you can address the problem of homelessness by giving citations,” Schofield said.

The deputy chief added that he intends to conduct a public meeting on the issue from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Metro’s Downtown Area Command Center, 621 N. Ninth St.

Metro’s approach to homelessness is an issue because the homeless camp along the street has once again stirred public debate. As in the years 2004 to 2006, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman is a very vocal participant, yet again raising the idea of forcing homeless people to accept services and making the homeless sort of wards of the city under the principle of “in loco parentis,” Latin for “in the place of a parent.”

Turning homeless people into wards of the government has been beaten back elsewhere because it is unconstitutional, according to Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

And although Schofield may have put a stop to citing churches, the practice left a bad taste for some.

Josh Collins is a self-described street preacher who has been in the Las Vegas area for two years. In early March, he said, a Metro officer ordered him and others off the Foremaster sidewalk. Collins refused. He wound up in jail, charged with “pedestrian interference.” He pleaded not guilty and says the charges were eventually dismissed. Still, he said, the idea of simply running off those who would offer help to the homeless is just one step removed from “criminalizing being poor.” It’s criminalizing helping the poor.

Sample said his church group is “not trying to be a nuisance” and intends to meet with Shannon West, the regional homeless service coordinator, to seek a solution. “I still believe there are hungry people out there,” Sample said.

West also said she didn’t know who had thought up Metro’s policy, or when. She said the idea had been discussed in a monthly meeting of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition’s Committee on Homelessness, which she attends. She said she hoped churches and other groups would reconsider the practice of feeding homeless people and instead partner with or donate to other, larger projects, such as Help Hope Home, a regional endeavor that has attempted to raise money for helping the homeless since 2005, but has raised only about $50,000 to date.

Sample said the officer who shooed him away handed him a flier with the logos of the regional committee and of Help Hope Home. It told people what they should and should not do if they want to “help end homelessness in our community.” One of the three items on the “don’t” list is “don’t hand out food on the street.” One of three suggestions on the “do” list is “donate to the Southern Nevada Homeless and Housing Trust Fund.”

Schofield said he is certain Metro is “not going to fix the problem” of homelessness and compared it with other social problems such as gangs. “Simply arresting everybody ... isn’t going to do it,” he said. He thinks neighborhoods such as the one surrounding Foremaster need to come together to address the issue.

Sample said it was “a giant waste of cop time to be dealing with me feeding the homeless.”

Schofield allowed that Metro “should’ve probably done a better job at reaching out to the churches instead of trying to explain the issues on the hood of a patrol car.”

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