LAS VEGAS: Law Criminalizing Homelessness Goes into Effect

Photo: Advocates inspect the conditions of the tunnel-dwelling homeless population beneath Las Vegas.

By Sherman Cox

Today, a new law goes into effect in Las Vegas, Nevada that prohibits camping or lodging in most public areas. Bill 2019-36 was passed by Las Vegas City Council in November of last year, and will allow prosecution of people living in the streets, in tents, or other structures, who could potentially face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for violating the law.

Protests in opposition to the bill erupted in city hall during its hearing three months ago. Protesters denounced the criminalization of homelessness and condemned Mayor Carolyn Goodman, wife of Oscar Goodman, a former mayor with connections to organized crime. Council sessions were continuously interrupted, with the mayor berating and silencing protesters. In the end, the bill was passed on a 5 to 2 vote in favor.

Within the last three decades, the city of Las Vegas has exploded in population, with estimates of around 2.25 million people now living within Clark County. This has been accompanied by a rapid increase in homelessness, and the city has the seventh highest rate of homelessness in the country. Nearly a quarter of this population consists of unaccompanied minors. Thousands of homeless people live in sprawling tent cities dotting the city while hundreds more live in squalor within storm drains beneath roads.

Fueling the growth of homelessness is a rise of living expenses and progressing gentrification, with a 15.6% increase in average cost of rent within the last year alone. Meanwhile, the city neglects lower priced housing for workers and shelters for homeless people, with both options continuously at capacity.

The ruling bourgeoisie of Las Vegas, who, as the proprietors of the “entertainment capital of the world,” wish to present a cleaner image to tourists and potential investors, only seek to stem this crisis by criminalizing the homeless themselves, a pattern seen in cities across the US, generally driven by right-wing ‘law and order’ agendas that impose further violence on the poor and working class.

Former Democratic presidential candidate, Julian Castro, speaks in Las Vegas in October 2019 against the homeless ban

National Democrat politicians such as current and former presidential candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julian Castro, along with reformists and revisionists of many types, publicly condemned the passing of this legislation. However, their bankrupt solutions are to merely increase the scope and quality of welfare provided by the imperialist state. They ignore the fact that homelessness is integral to capitalism and that it cannot be abolished unless capitalism itself is overthrown. Their welfare, regardless of its scope or quality, is akin to placing a band-aid onto an amputated limb: it may stop some of the bleeding, but it cannot fix the problem. This performance act is a sly attempt to hamper the masses’ clamor for rebellion while reinforcing their dependence on the ruling class.

To entrench their position and to increase the rate of exploitation, the bourgeoisie maintains a reserve army of labor – the unemployed – who compete amongst themselves and against workers for employment. This drives down the cost of labor, suppresses dissent, and manifests widespread homelessness and poverty. However, the bourgeoisie do not want unemployment to be too prevalent, as they still need a large workforce, a positive public image, and more importantly, no mass rebellion sparked by hungry, unemployed workers. This manifests in abuse, fines, and mass incarceration for homeless people, as the bourgeoisie is only interested in herding their numbers, not solving the problem.