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Feed the Hungry, Go to Jail?

Homeless advocates in Las Vegas have been told to stop giving food to the hungry in public parks or risk going to jail.

The Las Vegas City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last week that makes it illegal to feed the homeless in any city park.

Las Vegas officials and homeless advocates say they want to help the homeless, but their conflicting views on how to help have become a legal and political battle.

Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic proposed the ordinance and says the problems began when individuals and a group called Food Not Bombs began setting up "mobile soup kitchens" in parks.

"Parks became overcrowded with people looking for free food. Residents complained that people were sleeping, urinating, and defecating in their yards," Jerbic said to ABC News.

According to Jerbic, the crime rate in the surrounding areas went up nearly 25 percent and drove residents out of the parks.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada calls the ordinance unconstitutional and a transparent attempt by the city to make homeless people disappear.

Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada ACLU, is outraged by the new restriction and says litigation challenging it is currently ongoing.

"Not a single member of the City Council stood up for the homeless. The fact that this ordinance passed unanimously is shameful and embarrassing," Peck said to ABC News. "It may make for good political theater, but it makes for rotten public policy."

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has been a vocal opponent of the presence of the homeless in city parks, but he declined to speak about the ban with ABC News.

Goodman has not answered questions about how marshals, who patrol city parks, will identify the homeless in order to enforce the new ordinance.

"Certain truths are self-evident," Goodman said in a July 20 interview with The Las Vegas Review-Journal. "You know who is homeless."

Food Not Bombs

"They are not required to hand over financial statements," Peck said. "Parks belong to everyone - not only if they are dressed well, but all members of the public."

Homeless advocate Gail Sacco brings food to Huntridge Circle Park nearly every day of the week.

Sacco said she was loosely connected with Food Not Bombs, which provides vegetarian and vegan meals to needy individuals based on the principle that food is a right, not a privilege.

She lives just a few blocks from the park and disagrees that the homeless ruin the neighborhood.

"I think for some people fear takes over and for others it's greed," Sacco said. "They want to have the park just to themselves and they don't want to have to share it with people who don't look like them, dress like them, or have as much money as they do."

On Monday in Orlando, Fla., charitable groups were also banned from feeding the homeless in downtown parks. The ACLU plans to sue in this case, too.

As homeless advocates fight these bans, they hope the controversy will bring the nation's homeless population back into the public eye.

"If just one person learns something they didn't know and decides to make a difference for another person, then it's all worth it," Sacco said.

Sacco says she will continue her daily routine of bringing food into Huntridge Circle Park to help feed those who are less fortunate.

"Anyone can become homeless," Sacco said. "Someday it could be you or me out there."

Source: ABC News

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