Failure to keep mouth in check on homelessness turns LV mayor into clown |

Failure to keep mouth in check on homelessness turns LV mayor into clown

John L. Smith

A circus atmosphere follows Mayor Oscar Goodman wherever he goes.

From City Hall to the Strip, “Good Morning America” to an endless string of cameo TV and movie roles, Goodman is a media ringmaster.

He basks in countless features about the “happiest mayor,” mostly brushes aside local critics who need only keep their tape recorders running to catch Goodman saying something eye-popping and jaw-dropping.

But these days I’m wondering if the ringmaster hasn’t needlessly painted himself as a clown on the hopelessly complicated issue of homelessness in Southern Nevada. Goodman has gone out of his way to take on the task of addressing and resolving the valley’s substantial homeless problems. From chronic street alcoholics and the mentally ill, to predator vagabonds and families living out of their cars, it’s a grim picture whether you believe there are 6,000 homeless in Southern Nevada or three times that many.

Like other mayors in other cities, in recent months Goodman has taken a “tough love” approach that focuses on pushing the recalcitrant homeless toward making hard decisions. Getting them off the park benches and out of the alleys isn’t easy, and self-motivation isn’t exactly their strong suit.

Goodman has been roundly denounced by local homeless advocates and self-styled defenders of the street, and he’s made himself an easy target, a proverbial punch clown, by failing to keep his amazing mouth in check. Not even the folks at Cirque du Soleil can put both feet in their mouths simultaneously and still deliver a clever quote, but some days Goodman does that without even trying.

Rather than making homelessness the issue by focusing on hard statistics and human stories – of the neighbors and business community as well as the unwashed – too often Goodman has wound up the story. It’s not that the homeless are victims or victimizers (they can be both), it’s what the mayor had to say today that makes the headlines.

And then the city goes out of its way to become a national lightning rod by passing an ordinance that prohibits private citizens from group feedings of the homeless in public parks. Suddenly, the complex issue grows even more complex because now ACLU lawyers, high-profile homeless experts and the national media are focused on Goodman and the new rule instead of on the real issue: How to successfully address an issue that plagues major cities from Seattle to Boston.

For a change, and perhaps because someone at City Hall finally sees the potential for this story to balloon into an international embarrassment and Goodman’s albatross – the city manager’s office has issued a memorandum that details some of the salient issues surrounding the no-feeding frenzy.

Since 1999, the city has spent more than $14 million on housing and other services for the homeless. The Las Vegas Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Shade Tree Shelter serve nearly 4,000 meals per day.

There is food available, and hundreds of social service workers spend long days and nights caring for the homeless – even for those too mentally ill, inebriated or stubborn to seek help themselves.

But then the city passes the no-feeding ordinance, and Goodman goes from ringmaster to clown in the media. On Monday, a KKLZ-FM, 96.3, employee was cited, as were a reporter and camera operator in what qualifies as a certifiable sideshow. It was a stage the mayor and City Council set when they insisted on passing the ordinance instead of beefing up park security and cataloging the alleged park abuses by the homeless.

Why the mayor continues to walk the point on this issue so long after he became the lightning rod is incomprehensible. Asked about the issue, and his evolving role in it, Goodman put up his dukes and defended his position. He also called himself “the kindest mayor in the world.”

He vowed not to rest while there were still park bums who “urinate, defecate, leave condoms, break bottles and ruin the quality of life of the neighborhood.

“Take all the shots you want, but I’m not going to change my mind on this one,” Goodman said. “I haven’t heard a better way. All the wise guys out there, if they come up with a better way, I’ll certainly listen to it.”

That sounds like a challenge.

So, how about it?

There has to be a better way than turning the homeless problem into a second-rate Ringling Brothers.

‘s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.