THE king of Las Vegas sat on his throne, a wood and leather replica of one that belonged to a mid-19th century Bavarian king. Resting his hand on the lion’s head carved into its arm, Mayor Oscar Goodman talked of his empire’s poorest souls.
“I love the homeless,” said Goodman, who once proposed shipping them to an abandoned prison 30 miles away. “Unfortunately,” the former Mafia defense lawyer added, “they’re really interfering with the quality of life.”
In this land of twinkling casinos and quick riches, Las Vegas is struggling to solve -- once and for all -- its most unglamorous problem. During Goodman’s watch, the city has tried what some say are among the country’s harshest tactics against the homeless, including a short-lived city ordinance that outlawed feeding them in parks. A ban on sleeping within 500 feet of feces was repealed in September, weeks after it was adopted. Last month, Goodman shut down a park after a homeless man stabbed another to death.
“The city is endlessly playing a game of whack-a-mole,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney for the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued last month to overturn the anti-feeding ordinance. “Anytime a population of homeless people becomes visible, they’ll just shut it down.”
Homeless advocates say conditions for the most destitute here are worse than in Los Angeles, where officials in recent years have tried to remove homeless encampments in skid row downtown.The Los Angeles plan was scaled back this year after a federal appeals court ruled that police could not arrest people for sitting or sleeping on public sidewalks. A 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Las Vegas as the fifth “meanest” city to the homeless, worse than Los Angeles and New York. The meanest was Sarasota, Fla.
The 6-foot-tall throne, a gift like the red crown and scepter sitting by his desk at City Hall, suits Goodman’s majestic image of himself and his city of 590,000 -- one of the fastest growing in the nation, with more than 5,000 people arriving each month. He wore his crown to a recent City Hall Christmas party, and his staff has been known to call him king.
While Goodman, 67, is the mayor of Las Vegas, the famous casino-lined strip -- a half-mile from downtown -- is outside the city limits. Goodman is betting his legacy on the revitalization of his city where 16,800 high-rise apartments and condominiums are replacing run-down buildings. Trendy lounges and sidewalk cafes are on the way.
Not included in the mayor’s blueprint are the people who pick through Dumpsters and panhandle for change -- then often bet it at a casino, “thinking they will hit a royal flush,” Goodman said.
A 2005 survey by Nevada researchers counted about 13,000 homeless in Las Vegas. The population has doubled over the last decade, with new arrivals and with poor residents being priced out of the housing market.
Goodman’s 10th-floor office at City Hall downtown overlooks several half-built condos and a public park -- Frank Wright Plaza -- where on a recent afternoon two dozen homeless people curled up in sleeping bags on the grass or slept on red gravel.
“They ruined the park,” said Goodman, who came up with the idea to build it. “That park was supposed to be an urban boutique park, and now people are scared to go down there.”
There’s plenty of room for the homeless in the shelters clustered a few miles from downtown, Goodman said, but they refuse to go. Long before the recent measures failed, he formed a coalition of city officials to work on getting them off the streets. He even said he would buy them bus tickets to leave the state.
“They say I’m a bad guy because I don’t want these folks wandering around neighborhoods,” Goodman said. “If it comes down to a choice between helping my good neighbors or helping the homeless, I choose my good neighbors.”
IN the park beneath the mayor’s office, Patricia White sat on a concrete bench eating pasta, bread and bananas donated by a charity. About three dozen homeless people lounged nearby. One read a book, another made roses out of palm fronds.
“He wants the homeless out of town,” White said, nodding toward City Hall, then cursing the mayor. White, 54, has been homeless for five months. She stopped working after she fell 15 feet off a building during a roofing job. She gambled away the last of her savings.
Now, White sleeps outdoors with two friends, though she said she doesn’t sleep in Frank Wright Plaza because of the sprinklers. They wake up the homeless and soak their clothes. White’s friend Walter Overton, 54, is convinced it’s the mayor’s doing.
“You lay in the grass and the sprinklers come on,” Overton said. “His office is right up there,” he added, pointing to the mayor’s headquarters. “He may have a button.”
So far, White has been able to avoid homeless sweeps at the secret spot where she sleeps with her friends. If the police find their home, she said, it will be hard to find another place.
“They run you out of places,” White said. “You can’t be here, you can’t be there.”
Overton, glancing in the direction of the 50-story building under construction, said, “They have more buildings going up to keep the homeless from enjoying society.” A sign on the building reads, “Soho style lofts.”
“You ain’t got money,” added White, “they don’t want you here.”
But White said she isn’t going anywhere. She spent two days in a shelter and came out with athlete’s foot. “I’ve heard they have bed bugs and fleas,” she said. “I can sleep out here and be cleaner.”
Besides, she didn’t much care for the shelter’s curfew and rules that dictated when she could take a shower. Nothing, she said, not the rain, not the mayor, can persuade her to go into a shelter.
Carrying a plastic bag of toiletries, Gail Sacco, a homeless activist, took a seat next to White.
“You got any women’s deodorant?” White asked Sacco. “Couple razors?”
Sacco nodded, handing her two pink plastic razors.
It was Sacco and her handouts that prompted the city this summer to prohibit feeding the homeless in parks. Dozens of homeless used to gather when Sacco distributed rice and beans at Huntridge Circle Park, located in a neighborhood of art deco homes and small businesses about three miles from Frank Wright Plaza. The city recently had spent $1.5 million to renovate Circle Park, but families feared taking their children there.
The mayor said feeding the homeless in city parks lured them away from social-service providers. After the ordinance was ruled unconstitutional, Sacco went back to handing out food there. On Nov. 24, after the man was stabbed and killed, the city posted signs that read, “Park Closed.” Sacco moved her mobile soup kitchen to the park across from the mayor’s office.
The homeless are scared, Sacco said. They don’t want to be rounded up and put in jail. “Now,” she said, “they’re just kind of scattered all over the place.”
DOWN the street from City Hall, a homeless woman pressed her nose against the window of the newly opened Potato Valley Cafe. As customers lunched, owner Ty Weinert, 31, recognized the woman peering inside. Sometimes she comes inside for a cup of coffee. This afternoon, the woman shuffled to the back of the restaurant to dig through a Dumpster.
Weinert’s restaurant, in a new 51-unit apartment building, was one of the first projects in the mayor’s revitalization plan. Across from a pawn shop and a wedding chapel, the restaurant sits next to a condo building under construction. Alongside menus, Weinert displayed copies of “Vurb,” a magazine advertising art studios and lofts with a headline that reads, “Welcome to a more fabulous Las Vegas.”
Weinert, who moved to Las Vegas from Washington, D.C., believes in the mayor’s vision. But she is torn over the approach toward the homeless. She disapproved of the law against feeding them. When Potato Valley opened, Weinert noticed two homeless men living in the back alley where she parked. They had hung up jeans and arranged blankets. They asked her for food. She offered bagels. They asked for something softer because they did not have teeth. Her husband gave her a look as if to say, “Well, beggars can’t be choosers.” Weinert gave them pastries.
“Other business owners said ‘You got to watch your back,’ ” she said. The homeless “will come in and take a full bath in your bathroom.”
One morning two weeks ago, Weinert noticed the men were gone. She figured someone had notified police, because their blankets, shopping carts, clotheslines and boxes had disappeared overnight.
“I give the mayor credit,” she said. “He is really trying to get people off the street.”
Rome was not built in a day, Goodman said, and the Las Vegas he dreams of -- without homeless people -- won’t be either.
Next, Goodman said, he wants to propose an ordinance that would let police send homeless people who appear to be mentally ill to psychiatric hospitals. He still believes his idea to send them to an abandoned prison was not half bad. The place had a kitchen and a hospital, he said. “If we were able to get the homeless there,” he said, “we could get them back into transitional housing.”
Goodman said his intentions are well-meaning -- he just wants to figure out a way to help those who don’t want to be helped. There is no reason, he said, to have a single homeless person sleeping on the street.
It will be a grand task, Goodman said, rising from his throne to touch his crown adorned with fake jewels.
“So,” he said, slipping into third-person, “I don’t know what the king is going to do about it.”