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October 24, 2014

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Six Questions for Harry Batiste

The ‘mayor’ of Foremaster Lane and Main Street

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Steve Marcus

Harry Batiste says he was “called by God” to be the leader of the tent city of homeless in Las Vegas. Homeless are “like anyone else. Everybody wants something better.”

Foremaster Lane

Rich Penska of H.E.L.P. of Southern Nevada, and a member of the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team, talks with a woman on Foremaster Lane Wednesday, July 29, 2009.  Launch slideshow »

Every city needs a mayor, and the tent city around Foremaster Lane and Main Street is no exception. Harry Batiste, a 51-year-old native of Lafayette, La., has taken the job.

That means he has tried to help steer events toward the best possible outcome for hundreds of his fellow homeless men, women and children camped on the sidewalks near downtown as dozens of private and public agencies converged on the area starting in the spring.

Batiste says he was “called by God” to fill the role, one he has taken on before, including once in Minneapolis, where he fought what he said were discriminatory practices against American Indians at homeless shelters.

How is Las Vegas different from other cities you’ve been in when it comes to the homeless?

There are more services in other places — and a lot less waste of public funding. Here it seems like there are many more people who want to take advantage of the homeless, by putting them in programs that are just about making money for the people who run the programs.

Why do homeless people often gather in tent cities?

It’s a security blanket, knowing the people around you. It’s a social thing, having a neighbor, someone you can talk to or ask for help.

Why do some homeless people here reject the groups that come to offer help?

Many of those groups have their own interests. Some just want to make money, by putting four guys in a place and taking $400 in county vouchers from each of them. Some just want to get rid of the homeless so the tourists won’t see homeless people. Some are overbearing, telling you how you should do things.

What would work better?

If they would say, “Let’s get to know you first,” see what’s the problem. The biggest issue is, people don’t need a parent, to be treated like kids. It’s hard for a

50-year-old man to be treated that way. Homeless people need a place they can work on their stuff, not somebody else’s ideas. They need to be kept safe and monitored, but they also have a right to their own decision-making process.

Has anything surprised you in your time at the homeless corridor in Las Vegas?

The humanity of homeless people. People think only of them as drunks or drug addicts, but people here help each other out. They’ll drag your tent down the street for you or give you half their sandwich.

What’s next for the people who don’t get help in this tent city?

They’re like anyone else. Everybody wants something better. Maybe they don’t know what it is yet. The question is: How do we get there? Who’s going to offer it?

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