As many Americans are told to shelter at home during the coronavirus pandemic, a striking image showing Las Vegas’ homeless lying on the ground of an outdoor parking lot designated as a "temporary shelter" has drawn swift criticism online.
The photo shows several homeless people outside the city's multi-use Cashman Center, positioned inside marked white boxes and covered in blankets as they lie on the concrete.
The temporary shelter, managed by the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, opened this past weekend after an overnight homeless shelter, run by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, was forced to close its doors after a man tested positive for COVID-19. The move sent about 500 people back onto the streets as temperatures in the area dipped into the 40s.
The image created a backlash on social media, with some wondering why the city didn’t place the homeless inside the Cashman Center or even in some of Las Vegas’ now mostly-vacant hotel rooms.
David Riggleman, Communications Director for the City of Las Vegas, told ABC News that a previous decision had been made to reserve the space inside the Cashman Center for overflow from area hospitals in case they became overwhelmed.
"The estimate was we could house about 1,000 hospital patients in there if need be," Riggleman said. "So certainly if there were homeless people who needed to go to the hospital they could use the facility, but that's why we didn't move all the homeless into the interior portions of Cashman because we’re holding that in reserve in case we need it as hospital space."
Former HUD Secretary and 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro tweeted the image Monday afternoon and pointed out the number of available hotel rooms where the homeless could be housed. Riggleman said that although the city isn't working on that, county officials are discussing such a solution. However, he said he’s unaware of how those talks are going or what stage those discussions are in.
Rigggleman said the city initially laid down 24,000 square feet of padded carpet across the parking lot and had everything spaced six feet apart for social distancing. He said it was working well, until officials determined that they couldn’t properly sanitize the carpet.
"It creates a problem because we don't have enough sleeping mats to provide for everyone at the temporary shelter -- we just don't have enough," Rigggleman said. "And so some people were just putting their bed rolls down on the pavement and staying on that."
The city expects to keep the outdoor shelter area open until at least Friday, when the Catholic Charities shelter is expected to reopen.