Vegas invited homeless to parking lot after virus closed shelter

Tim Stelloh

Officials are facing criticism for using a Las Vegas parking lot as a temporary shelter after a facility was closed when a homeless man tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

Officials from Las Vegas and Clark County opened the temporary shelter at an event site lot a few miles north of the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday after determining that 500 people using Catholic Charities' overnight facility would have nowhere to sleep, said David Riggleman, the city's communications director.

The lot initially included carpeting, but officials later ditched it over concerns that it could help spread the virus, Riggleman said in an email. When mats that could easily be disinfected weren't available, hundreds of 6-foot squares were painted onto the asphalt and surrounded by metal barricades — a grid meant to prevent more cases of the disease through social distancing measures, he said.

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But after images of people on the ground with little more than a sheet and a blanket were published, observers pointed out — among other things — that thousands of Las Vegas hotel rooms were sitting empty because of a statewide, monthlong coronavirus ordinance.

Among the critics is Julián Castro, the former Democratic presidential candidate who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the administration of President Barack Obama.

"Las Vegas is now packing people into concrete grids out of sight," he tweeted. "There are 150K hotel rooms in Vegas going unused right now. How about public-private cooperation (resources) to temporarily house them there? And fund permanent housing!"

Added another commentator: "Nevada, a state in one of the richest countries in the world, has painted social-distancing boxes on a concrete parking lot for the homeless to sleep in."

"This is America," said a third.

Riggleman said two local facilities — a Salvation Army-run overnight shelter and a city-run "courtyard" that offers homeless services — could have accommodated those who otherwise would have stayed at Catholic Charities. But concerns over social distancing led officials to "very quickly" set up the shelter at the 55-acre Cashman Field site, which includes a shuttered convention center.

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Riggleman said people weren't allowed into the center itself because it may later be used as a hospital space. He said that the county was drafting a plan to house people in hotels but that the shelter was closed before the plan could be rolled out.

On Sunday, 117 people stayed at the temporary shelter, which will remain open until Friday, he said.