City officials in Las Vegas have passed a controversial law making it illegal to sleep or camp in downtown and residential public areas as long as there are open beds available at city homeless shelters.
Before the vote, protesters swarmed the Las Vegas City Council chambers with signs that read, "Poverty is not a crime," and chanting, "Housing, not handcuffs!"
City officials said the measure is necessary to nudge those who do not have permanent housing to enter homeless shelters, in addition to dealing with blight and public health issues stemming from encampments.
Under the law, those found sleeping in public areas affected by the rules could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"This is flawed, but it is a start," said Mayor Carolyn Goodman, noting that the city has had meetings on the homelessness problem for 20 years but has not made major gains.
She said she sponsored the bill "to be given the right to take care of ourselves."
Goodman presided over a raucous hearing Wednesday night in which members of the public were given a maximum of two minutes each to express their dissatisfaction with the law.
At the two-minute mark, the microphones were cut off, causing some to scream the remainder of their comments in the room out of frustration. City marshals had to escort several people out of the hearing.
"It brings disgrace to the city on Las Vegas," resident Donna West said. "We need to stop before we start treating our homeless citizens as criminals."
Dozens of other critics turned out to express similar outrage.
"This is not a real solution," said longtime Las Vegas resident and civil rights advocate Gary Peck. "It's just one more law that cops and prosecutors can use to sweep homeless people out of sight and out of mind."
The mayor bristled at these comments, contending that the tourism-heavy city has no other choice but to address public health and blight issues complained about by residents and visitors.
"This is not penalty-orientated," Goodman said. "This is to get our homeless into an environment of re-entry into the best life in this community."
A federal appeals court struck down a similar law last year in Boise, Idaho, ruling that cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go. The appeals judges said such a ban would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
The Las Vegas law was designed to not run against that ruling. Under the ordinance, if the shelters in Las Vegas run out of space, the ban on camping and sleeping would not be enforced, city officials said at the Wednesday hearing.
While the law becomes effective on Sunday, the criminal provisions will not start until February.
In remarks after the city council passed the ordinance 5-2, Goodman called out an audience member who was shaking his head in disapproval.
"Let me ask what you have done for anyone," Goodman said. "This city tries."