08/07/2003 11:00PM

'Meanest city' in U.S.: Bad rap or simply the truth?


Where else but in Las Vegas can a respected national organization call us "The Meanest City in America" and the mayor actually doesn't rebuke it?

Considering how much Las Vegas relies upon tourism and gaming, you would think Mayor Oscar Goodman would be more concerned about the city's public image. In reality, he is.

A debate began early this week when the Washington D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Las Vegas No. 1 on its list of "Meanest Cities."

The ranking came from a report titled "Illegal to be homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States." Right behind Las Vegas came San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

The criteria takes into account issues such as local laws against the homeless, called "quality of life ordinances," the political climate, and the available programs to help the homeless.

Mayor Goodman countered that he's not "losing any sleep" over the report and defended his past actions and comments.

Some of those actions include "sweeps" of downtown encampments that part of the 10,000 homeless had set up.

"We are intolerant of those who don't follow the basic rules to get help," Mayor Goodman told the local media, "like leaving behind the booze and drugs. We will help those who are mentally ill, those who need and want our help."

As brazen as some of the mayor's comments have been, he has received little flak locally. In fact, he has received veiled support.

For example, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a poll after Mayor Goodman said that homeless people should be given a one-way bus ticket out of town if they didn't like it here. More than 36 percent of respondents agreed with his idea. The second largest bloc of votes, 28 percent, suggested building more shelter space to solve the problem.

Last November, a referendum to raise property tax 1 cent per $100 to fund more homeless services was voted down, 64-36 percent.

The vote reflects the fact that more than 6,000 people a month are moving to Las Vegas. Mainly they come because of jobs and the chance to work. They will assist those who may be down on their luck and want to improve their situation.

Just this week, a fire in the Salvation Army warehouse caused $200,000 in damage to the building and a loss of $300,000 in donations.

"After the fire, companies like Nevada Power, Wells Fargo, Cox Communications, Smith's, Station Casinos, Household Credit, and the Security Officers Association called and said they'd write a check," said Charlie Desiderio of the Salvation Army. "People are asking, 'How can I help?' We have always gotten help from our community. I dislike the innuendos that Las Vegas is not a caring community."

Desiderio also said that a huge portion of their budget goes to help "the homeless that are from the street, people who are homeless because of addictions. We even have a program for mentally challenged homeless."

The city is negotiating to lease an unoccupied building to the Salvation Army for $1.

Mayor Goodman said, "I can't think of a better agency to do business with than the Salvation Army."

With so much of the Salvation Army's efforts helping the homeless, is the mayor being a hypocrite? Not really, he's just calling it as he sees it.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up show.