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November 03, 2003
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ARCHIVE: Homeless

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Las Vegas is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live here if you are homeless according to a report this year that Las Vegas is the meanest city in the nation towards the homeless. Yet each year Las Vegas hosts the nation's largest single-day of free services for the homeless in the country drawing thousands. Most homeless go to settle up on fines. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.

HOMELESS ROUND UP SOQ 8:00

[Sound of Karaoke: "I keep falling in and out of love"]

Singing Karaoke blues to an audience of empty chairs was the least popular activity at the 11th annual Stand Down for the Homeless in Downtown Las Vegas. The 2-thousand homeless were more interested in the array of free services - defined by mazes of lines that sprouted at 3 am, wrapping all the way around the stadium.

REPORTER: "There is a line for everything here . . ."

ALISA: "They are teaching us patience and tolerance today . . ."

Alisa's in line for a hair cut. She's been homeless since February when charged with domestic violence and given a restraining order banning her from her residence. People wait patiently in other lines too for healthcare and food.

Track 13

:34 - 1:16

REPORTER: "What have you eaten today?"

WATSON: "This is my breakfast right here . . . beef Jerky, I had a bag of potato chips and some planters peanuts, beef Jerky Planters Peanuts and chips. I'm starving to death."

Ralph Watson is at the front of a long line waiting for food. Usually he gets food by pan-handling. Once, he got caught doing it and went to court.

Track 13

"They said it wasn't even a case worth trying, It wasn't even worth it. I walked up to the court and they said: 'walk out'. I asked a guy for a quarter. I was arrested for that."

Then the line moves and he gets a hot dog.

"Can I have two . . ."

But most of the homeless here don't have food and hygiene on their minds.

Track 3

:34-:45

"It's nothing nice, you live out in the desert or you live under a bridge or something, you know, cops hassle you all the time, give you tickets, it's no good."

This 56 year native Las Vegan is homeless and calls himself 'Guy.' He has fines and tickets on his mind.

Track 3

1:05

"Yup, I got a whole pocket full of tickets. Panhandeling, J-walking and disobeying a police officer. There is one, two, three, four, five, eleven, twelve .. . about 15."

He goes to the longest line of all - 30 yards long. It goes through a metal detector. Police with rubber gloves rummage through the homeless' sleeping bags wrapped in plastic.

[sound of metal detector]

From there they go to mobile courtrooms.

[sound of courtroom]

Here, city attorneys kick back silently while judges from Las Vegas forgive thousands of dollars in fines and warrants. Judge David Figler himself quashed more than 350 warrants on this day and saw twice his normal caseload. In all, the City of Las Vegas quashed more than 700 warrants.

Track 67

1:33-2:00

"It really hasn't been difficult. . . everyone is really grateful that we are giving them the opportunity. The want to get their lives back on track, they are basically saying, 'Look I need to get my driver's license in order to work, everyone is in cooperation here, the City Attorney's office, the public defender, we are all figuring out ways to get them back on track."

Public Defender Noreen Nyikos, who also sits on the board of the ACLU is more than happy to cooperate in eliminating burdensome tickets. She says the city is selectively enforcing j-walking and other minor infractions. Nyikos says issuing tickets to the homeless is the City's effort to erase homelessness from the tourist's Las Vegas experience.

Track 68

1:43-2:18

"It does no one any good, because what happens is it is impossible to pay, they know they can't afford to pay it, they are afraid they will be taken to jail because they can't pay it, so they don't go to court and they get a bench warrant which has an additional fine attached to it and they end up owing thousands of dollars for J-walking."

The technique's not unique, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless this year, Across the country politicians and law enforcement violate civil rights by targeting the homeless - especially in Las Vegas which it ranked as the meanest.

Frank, who describes himself as homeless is walking away from the event with a fresh hair cut, a blanket and a clean record thanks to the courts leniency on this day. He says the tickets issued by Vegas's black and yellow-clad cops don't keep him away from the city, they just push him further to the margins of society.

Track 72

1:42 - 2:00

"Pretty much not doing anything normal on a normal basis, because you gotta be watching out for the bumble bees. Because you are walking down the street, they will ask you what you are doin'? 'Well I am walking,' 'Well, that's a smart-ass answer. You got ID, you got any warrants?' It seems to me like it is unconstitutional.

None of the 20 officers at the event were authorized to speak to the media but on background one officer said many of the homeless here know about this opportunity to clear their record specifically because officers tell them about it. They helped Steve Royba who's seen his life spiral into homelessness since his wallet was stolen three months ago. When asked where he spent last night, he lifts his wrist revealing the green band around it.

Track 17

3:34 - 4:18

"You really want to know, I came out of detox yesterday. I went to a police officer, cuz I had a couple of beers and said please, take me to detox and he said jump in . . . took me to detox at like 8 and I got up this morning and I said I gotta go down there. The night before I think I walked most of the night and I think I went to the bus station and spent most of the night there, you are more or less on the move at all times."

According to the Southern Nevada Homeless Coalition, most of the 8-12 thousand homeless in Las Vegas have wandered the city for more than a year. And despite the ticketing that keeps them on the move, Las Vegas's homeless population rate isn't any lower than the rest of the nation.

For KNPR I'm Ky Plaskon

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