Republicans vying to face Sisolak split on how to ‘clean up’ homeless population
James DeHaven Reno Gazette Journal January 7, 2022
Nevada’s ever-worsening homelessness crisis has Republican governor hopefuls clamoring to crack down on the homeless themselves.
Two candidates vying to unseat Gov. Steve Sisolak doubled down on police sweeps and endorsed a controversial homeless camping ban during a Thursday night debate at the Atlantis Resort.
A third, long-shot hopeful, Barak Zilberberg, proposed a special patrol force to collect taxes from panhandlers.
That idea proved only slightly outside the mainstream, at least among the eight candidates at the primary campaign’s first live clash in Reno.
Joey Gilbert, a retired professional boxer and first-time candidate from Reno, said homeless residents were not suffering from a lack of programs, assistance or education, but from “a lack of wanting to help themselves.”
“At the end of the day, you have to care enough about the homeless and about your community to enforce the law,” Gilbert added. “When faced with being put in jail or cleaning it up, (homeless people) are going to choose the latter. It’s that simple.”
Fellow firebrand Michele Fiore — a Las Vegas city councilwoman reportedly under active investigation by the FBI — also seemed focused on cleaning up, as opposed to treating, chronic homelessness.
“It’s not all about mental illness,” Fiore said. “I myself have put my hiking boots on and spoken to several (veterans) who choose to be off-the-grid.”
Fiore and Mayor Carolyn Goodman took the brunt of the blowback from passage of a 2019 anti-camping law that critics claimed criminalized homelessness in Las Vegas.
Nevada’s homeless population has skyrocketed in recent years amid an affordable housing crisis that, in Reno, was worsened by rapid redevelopment and razing low-budget motels that used to serve as the last rung on the region’s housing ladder.
A recent ProPublica investigation revealed that Reno’s lack of a policy to deter demolition of affordable housing, and lack of requirements to replace lost units, has left extremely low-income residents in dire straits.
City officials have previously defended the development as progress, noting that some of the motels were derelict and future housing will be safer.
Numerous studies have found homeless people have much higher rates of mental illness than others, and are substantially more likely to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. Nearly half of the country’s homeless population is thought to suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, a recent Republican convert and first-time governor candidate, said homelessness was “a sickness, and it’s sad.”
Lee lamented that a lot of homeless Nevadans “don’t do anything about it,” though he went on to suggest that the state consider adding psychiatric hospitals.
Ex-U.S. Sen. Dean Heller sided with Lee on homelessness as a mental health problem, but settled for saying “there was no easy answer” to fixing it.
Heller was booed and jeered by a crowd of hundreds after proclaiming himself “the only proven conservative” in the race.
Gilbert and Fiore received warmer receptions from the party faithful in attendance on Thursday, where organizers had candidates draw from a deck of cards to determine their seating on the debate stage.
Their claims about “critical race theory” being taught in schools, about voter fraud and Gilbert’s arguing politicians needed to “take the handcuffs off of our (police) officers and let them do their jobs” won applause.
So did their one-liners and digs at Sisolak and Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, the sole Republican candidate who did not attend Thursday’s debate.
The candidates are betting that Republicans’ economic message will resonate in Nevada, where the economy relies heavily on sectors such as tourism and live entertainment that cannot easily transition to remote work. The state’s 6.8% unemployment rate ranks 50th in the nation and 66,200 fewer workers are employed at casinos and hotels than before the pandemic.
“Given the disaster that the Sisolak administration has been in the state, people are paying attention,” said venture capitalist Guy Nohra, another candidate. “I know our side is going to be really fired up. I could see it tonight. I could feel it tonight.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.