Democratic 2020 field opposes Las Vegas law banning sleeping on sidewalks

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Over strenuous objections from several Democratic presidential candidates, the Las Vegas City Council pushed ahead Wednesday with a controversial ordinance that activists have decried as “criminalizing homelessness.”

Touted as a proposal to empower authorities to connect homeless Nevadans to needed services, the new law will ban sleeping on many city sidewalks if beds are available at Las Vegas shelters. 

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By the time the city was holding its hearing on the proposal Wednesday morning, eight candidates — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — had denounced the measure

Dozens of campaign staff and supporters joined protests at city hall. Sanders urged supporters on his email list to attend a morning rally on the measure. 

Candidates have flocked to Nevada in recent months to tout their efforts to address the issue — Buttigieg toured affordable housing in Reno and Sanders unveiled his housing platform in Las Vegas, for instance. Warren’s plan recalls a 2008 trip to Nevada at the height of the housing crisis in its first paragraph.

Nevada leads the nation in the “greatest shortage of affordable housing” for the lowest income households. More than 14 thousand are estimated to be homeless in southern Nevada, which encompasses Las Vegas, though estimates dipped 9 percent this year

In announcing their opposition to the ordinance, many campaigns cited their candidates’ record or proposals to address a homeless and housing crisis that has gripped communities throughout the west. In fact, six of those campaigns — BookerCastroHarrisSandersWarren, and Buttigieg — have outlined platforms on housing and homelessness.

When it comes to the federal government wielding its spending to push municipalities, several candidates name ideas like allowing developers to build more affordable housing to drive down rents or forcing private landlords to accept tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers

Only Castro, the former Obama housing chief, specifically pledges to encourage local efforts to end homelessness “criminalization” laws. 

“The federal government hands out a lot of money to states and cities and it attaches all kinds of conditions to that money,” says Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty. 

Her group has led a “Housing Not Handcuffs” campaign to track and discourage “criminalization of homelessness” in cities around the country.

“I don’t know how arresting someone is going to create housing that’s affordable, or create services to be available, or create an emergency shelter spot that doesn’t exist. These are the real issues,” Foscarinis said of the Las Vegas measure.

All six vow to boost funding for federal efforts to build affordable housing or subsidize homeless services, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “McKinney-Vento” grants

Sanders pledges to roll back the “Faircloth Amendment,” a Clinton-era measure that blocks the federal government from expanding its own public housing supply.

Last month, Harris introduced a bill calling for massive outlays towards programs to end homelessness. And earlier this year, Warren reintroduced a bill to produce millions of units of affordable housing.

“That’s the big problem. That’s why so much of the talk on this issue is about money. Because these programs have never been funded to do anywhere near what it would take actually to do the job they’re designed for,” explains Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

A handful of the Democratic senators now campaigning for president have consulted Berg’s group in developing their legislation to address housing and homelessness.

“Only about a quarter of the people who are eligible actually receive receive help from the housing program, and the other three quarters don’t get any help, and that’s one of the big reasons why we have so much homelessness and terrible housing,” adds Berg. 

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