Homeless Feeding Ban Prompts ACLU Suit

An ordinance recently passed in Las Vegas prohibits feeding homeless people in public parks. Advocates say the law is unjust, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has filed a lawsuit. Ed Gordon talks with Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A growing number of cities are passing laws intended to push homeless people out of public places. But it's not just the homeless who are targets, it's also charity workers. In Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada, it's now illegal to feed indigents in public arenas like parks.

The statute recently passed in Las Vegas is said to be among the first of its kind in the country, and a handful of advocates have already been cited for breaking that law.

Just over a week ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada filed a lawsuit taking on the city and the mayor. Gary Peck is the group's executive director. Mr. Peck, good to have you with us.

Mr. GARY PECK (Executive Director, ACLU of Nevada): Thank you very much for having me on your show.

GORDON: Tell me, if you would, why the ACLU decided to take up the cause of the organization Food Not Bombs and the lawsuit against the city here.

Mr. PECK: Well, the law makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine for feeding someone who is indigent, or who an ordinary, reasonable person believes to be indigent, in public parks. We believe that that law violates the first amendment rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. We also believe it violates the 14th amendment's right - due process rights and equal protection rights.

In a nutshell, to sort of fix on the most obvious problem with this law and why it is so offensive - in our country, the Constitution and Bill of Rights apply to everyone equally. As soon as they are - the government begins to act as if they can apply them to people selectively, based on such things as economic status, they're not longer rights, they become privileges. And this is a law which most definitely treats poor and other disfavored people differently, based merely on status, not based on criminal activities. It's outrageous. It's embarrassing…

GORDON: All right. Let me stop you there, and I want to play a clip for you and get your reaction. Obviously, not everyone views it that way. City attorney for Las Vegas Brad Jerbic had this to say.

Mr. BRAD JERBIC (City Attorney, Las Vegas): By taking soup kitchens out of the shelters and putting them into city parks, the homeless people are literally lured away from service providers that provide beds, that provide doctors, that provide jobs, training, and medical services and leave them behind in the park when the feeding's over.

Once the homeless are several miles away from service providers, they have nowhere to go. So what we've had is, literally, a neighborhood destroyed overnight. Urination, defecation in front yards and backyards; people sleeping in people's houses or on their front doorsteps, back doorsteps. We've seen people breaking into cars. Crime, literally, has increased in the neighborhood as a result of this particular park.

GORDON: Mr. Peck, what of those who suggests as the city attorney did that ultimately you're hurting those that need to be helped.

Mr. PECK: Oh, this is a shell game that the city has been playing for ten years, while it has waged war on poor and homeless people, I believe in part, because they think the poor and the homeless are bad for our leading industries - tourism, travel and gaming.

The areas where services are provided are - in our community - called The Homeless Corridor. They're near the downtown area. Poor and homeless people have been driven out by the police, by the city in sweep after sweep, after sweep. Then the law of physics kicks in and homeless people show up in other areas, like public parks, and they are again attacked legally and harassed by the police, and told they should go back to the very area they were forced out of. It's preposterous.

And let's be clear, the law says nothing about soup kitchens. The law says it is illegal to feed an indigent person or someone who appears to be indigent, whatever that means, in a public park. So if I were to hand you, Ed, a hamburger in the park, and you were dressed in a business suit, that would be fine. If, on the other hand, you looked, I suppose, scruffy and I handed you a hamburger, that would be illegal. That's a problem. That's unconstitutional, and it doesn't really do anything to help the plight of the poor.

We could have a real debate about how best to serve the needs of the poor and the homeless in our community. Good place to start, would be to try to work to create the kind of public and political will necessary to dedicate the kind of resources that are needed to provide the kinds of services - mental health, substance abuse, and otherwise - that poor people need to get off the streets and rehabilitate themselves and get their lives straightened out.

GORDON: All right. Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. Thank you very much for joining. Appreciate it.

Mr. PECK: Thank you so much for having me. I'm glad you're taking up the issue.

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