The glitz and the grit: Las Vegas homeless stake claim on the Strip

Category: Beer Humor
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As the city works hard to position itself as the ultimate luxury destination, its most impoverished residents complain of growing tensions with police

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Behind some shrubs at the Wynn, Jackson can overhear drunken banter as high-heeled shoes go clapping past, and see the Strips glow reflected on clouds overhead. He expects to be shooed off the grounds before dawn. Tourists pay as much as $500 to golf at the resort, though some of their extravagance filters down.

When Im here, said Jackson, his face scabbed and his long blonde hair chunky with dirt, me and whoever Im around eat better than Ive ever eaten in my life. People give leftovers from really expensive restaurants.

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As a local saying goes, Las Vegas is a last chance city for last chance people, and hundreds of homeless people beg or perform along its most famous stretch of asphalt each day. But in recent years, the city has rebranded itself as a destination for luxury shopping and bottle-service clubs, and its homeless residents are wondering whether they have a place any more.

Against a backdrop ofpalm trees, fountain shows and neon-lit resort bars, some dress up as levitating mystics, or collect beer cans from trash bins, or hold signs stating everything from requests for food to bizarre invitations to kick them in the groin for cash. By turns, the street is both glitzy and gritty, and the lives of its homeless inhabitants evoke stark contradictions.

Jaime, a 23-year-old Utah woman, bowed her head behind a sign reading pregnant and homeless, anything helps in front of a mall with Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton stores inside. (Like others, she declined to give her last name.)

During the coldest hours of the night, she said, she sleeps in a casino sportsbook while her boyfriend keeps an eye out for security. I only leave the Strip when I have to go to court, she added, noting that shes always on alert for the guys in neon yellow jackets officers on foot patrol.

Joe, who is homeless, holds a sign asking for help as tourists take a selfie on the Strip in Las Vegas. Photograph: Rachel Aston for the Guardian

Walt, a 52-year-old army veteran, was stationed in his wheelchair on a bridge between Caesars Palace and the Bellagio, two of the strips most palatial resorts. He wheels himself there every morning from the concrete flood wash that houses his tent, one of the many homeless people who live in the bowels of the city.

Echoing Jackson, the man behind the bushes, he said: I actually eat better now that Im on the streets than I did when I had a house and was working. There was a box of Giordanos pizza by his side. As he spoke, a sign announcing his military service attracted a $5 bill.

Thank you for your service, said the donor, a sunburnt man in a polo shirt. If you in fact did it.

But as with other homeless people on the Strip, Walt says he has been feeling the arm of the law more aggressively. He claims he was jailed recently for obstructing the sidewalk with his wheelchair. Theyre trying to get all the homeless out of here by arresting people, he said.

The police have indeed been focusing more attention on Las Vegas Boulevard as the city the focal point for the 6,200 homeless people tallied in the region during a recent count gets serious about making it a more walkable destination.

There has been an effort to remove chronic nuisances from the Strip, such as panhandling and people sleeping on the sidewalk, said Las Vegas police spokesman Michael Rodriguez. The homeless tax the resorts resources as well. Security has to remove people who are sleeping in bushes, or deal with other nuisances like urinating in fountains or leaving trash behind.

Six major resort companies declined to comment for this article. The police department defended the surge in nuisance citations by referring to its role in an alternative court system, the community impact court, which launched in January. In lieu of jail time, a judge there may direct homeless people to social services groups that specialize in things like housing assistance, job training or mental health treatment.

Rodriguez said that the court provides homeless Las Vegans with resources that law enforcement isnt equipped to provide. As an officer at the scene, I cant help someone obtain their ID from Mississippi so they can get their social security check, or get psych meds they need because they have schizophrenia.

The program coincides with a $5m investment to improve the pedestrian experience on Las Vegas Boulevard through wider sidewalks and relocated fire hydrants and street signs. It is also complemented by another courtroom initiative in a warehouse behind the Cosmopolitan casino that targets certain non-permanent obstructions, a bureaucratic euphemism for people who sell beer, water, and other black-market goods on the Strip.

Karen Taylor waits on the Strip for handouts in Las Vegas. Photograph: Rachel Aston for the Guardian

So far, these initiatives havent gone over well on the street. Next to a trio of young women taking a group selfie in front of the faux Eiffel tower, Joe, a bearded homeless man, said: Cops got nothing better to do than to come make us move. As a guitarist picked through a flamenco melody, Joes attitude darkened. Ive been through the program. Its just a way to keep tabs on us.

Desmond Young, 20, paused from strumming a ukulele to say that getting barred from the Strip would devastate him. This is the only way I can make money unless I wanna go sell my body, or do something that might get me arrested. I cant help my family from jail. He, his mother and siblings live on the brink of homelessness in a weekly motel. When two young women approached from Planet Hollywood, he belted out impromptu hard-luck lyrics.

For now, the Strips homeless inhabitants exist in an uneasy in-between state. Outside the Bellagio Fountain, where water streams twirled to a Three Tenors opera aria, Jesse, 44, put down a beer can to stand up and show off four police citations, symbolic of the new regime in town and its contentious way of reaching out. He fanned them like a poker hand.

Ive got four queens! What do you got?

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