Where to be?
A homeless-and-hungry shelter relocated last year; an out-of-state shopping center owner is fighting the move
By Alice Wagoner
Thursday, June 28, 2018 at 6:46 pm
What is a good neighbor?
George Lyon, executive director of Samaritan House, said he’s trying to be the best possible neighbor he can be — the nonprofit situated between local businesses.
If one were to stand in front of the facility — at one time a dairy plant — located at 1000 Mills Ave., and face the busy avenue, BTU would be on the left. To the right is a mini-mall containing three businesses: Dollar General, Fast Bucks loan provider, and Heritage Home Healthcare office.
While Lyon said he’s had no problems with BTU, the head of the emergency homeless shelter and food and housing provider, is facing questions of whether the City of Las Vegas zoned correctly the building being rented for Samaritan House.
A letter dated April 24, from the Santa Fe law firm of Sommer Karnes & Associates, LLP, was directed to the City and copied to several city administrators, plus Lyon.
Over three pages, the writer, Joseph M. Karnes, asserted that Samaritan House’s use of the building is in violation of the City codes.
Karnes did not reply to phone and email messages about these issues.
Using a closed dairy plant and operating it as a homeless shelter was
“incompatible with the uses on Mirza’s property and existing uses in the vicinity and violates multiple requirements of the Zoning Code,” Karnes claimed in his letter.
“Mr. Mirza” is Suleman Mirza, owner of the mini-mall premises, and one who procured the services of Karnes & Associates, LLP to bolster his case.
Not only did Mirza obtain a lawyer and write letters to the City, he started making phone calls.
“I’ve been getting calls from Mirza in San Francisco,” Lyon said. “He has a problem with anybody associated with us here. We checked for zoning when we moved to the dairy plant. It’s zoned C-3, or commercial zone 3.”
Then they received accusations that Samaritan House clients were observed “shooting up” in front of Dollar General. Lyon said he advised and heightened awareness to his staff of the complaints.
With four members of the nonprofit’s 11-member Board of Directors present, Lyon recently discussed the letter and played Mirza’s recorded calls, one of which threatened legal action if Lyon, Samaritan staff, or the clients parked in the parking lot. They were not allowed in any of the businesses, on his property Mirza said.
Lyon played Mirza’s calls, which were phoned into Lyon’s cell number on April 11. In the first call, Mirza accused Lyon of telling a Heritage Home Healthcare worker not to write a letter, and ended by referring to Samaritan House as “your f—–g shelter.” In the second call, Mirza apologized for getting “his wires crossed” in thinking Lyon had contacted the worker.
The third recorded message ran seconds later, ‘This is Mr. Mirza again. This message is for George Lyon. Nevertheless stay off my property, and don’t talk to my employees. And by the way, I’ve gotten a good lawyer.’
Since the letter was sent to the City, Lyon said, Mirza has had a fence that sits on the Samaritan House lot replaced with a nearly identical chain-link fence. Lyon said green netting has also been put up in the back area behind Samaritan House.
Jose Pablo Rojas-Brewer, a relatively new board member, who’s employed by United World College, said there seems to be a misunderstanding on the zoning, but that Samaritan is in the correct zone. In any case, that shouldn’t stop the organization’s work.
“In my opinion, our physical location should not interfere with the ‘services that we provide,’ Rojas-Brewer said. “Whether this is a misunderstanding or not, Samaritan House plays a vital role in human development, in helping our fellow community members. If this is a game about us versus them, it’s not healthy. I really hope that they can understand that whether we will be here or next to a university, we’re all members of the community.”
Another newcomer on the Board and UWC employee, Melanie Brennand said she thought it was a personal rather than legal issue. It was interesting that Mr. Mirza doesn’t live in Las Vegas, she said.
“The place of businesses next door is just that: they’re places of business,” she said. “I can’t imagine the impact that he’s implying of our clients and community members. They’re not all transient groups of people.”
Brennand said the fact that Las Vegas residents collect food from the Food Pantry is a critical piece of information that other community members need to know.
She continued, “Again, I think the stigma that people have around ideas of homelessness and food insecurity are something we’re here to address and have a conversation about, and the tone and sort of the aggressiveness is of concern to me.”
Previous conversations with Mirza focused on the fence between the two properties, which Lyon said his neighbor hired a contractor to place a nearly identical chain link barrier parallel to Samaritan’s to try to keep us from walking around, going there,” Lyon said.
“He told me stories about people shooting up in front of Dollar General, which is ridiculous,” Lyon said. “An addict’s going to go in the back, or something, not in front of the public. “
Lyon continued. “I tried to do everything possible to extend to him that we’re all about becoming good neighbors. We want to be the best neighbors we possibly can. He got progressively more hostile toward the population here. I don’t know if it’s a customer over there or if it’s the managers over there.
When I first moved here, I did go talk to all the managers in each of the stores and gave them my card also, and I have not heard a complaint from them.”
How this all started is a mystery to Lyon. He doesn’t know if it was a customer or one of the business managers who started complaining to Mirza. He said shortly after moving to the location, he met with all three managers, gave them his card, advising if they had any problems to contact him. They’ve never done so, he said.
Meanwhile Mirza also told him that Samaritan House tenants had also been observed urinating on the Dollar General building.
“If you go over there, they have a policy that anyone that comes in, you tell them the bathroom doesn’t work.,” Lyon said. “So my staff member tells me, ‘I’ve observed their own customers urinating on the side of the building. It’s not our guys, it’s their customers because they won’t let them use their bathroom.’”
Lyon placed a porta potty on the property so clients wouldn’t have any reason to stray off the premises to relieve themselves. With the warm weather, the emergency shelter has closed for the season, and the porta potty removed, Lyon said.
He made mention of a cluster of group homes located in the general vicinity. They have been making their way to the Samaritan House, Lyon said. Could the business managers or employee be mistaking those individuals who also traverse Mills Avenue for Samaritan House clients?
“Even if they come from the group homes, Samaritan still feeds them,” Lyon said. “We are seeing an increase in the amount of people that we’re feeding who are at group homes.”
What does an organization do with a business that’s not acting neighborly? In this case, because Mirza took his case to the city, the Samaritan House Board members have decided to let the city take the lead on the matter.
Katie McDonough, Board Vice President, has served on the board since the 1990s. She said the board recommended that no action be taken “until the City invites us or asks us to participate in any kind of a meeting. But that hasn’t happened yet. We feel fairly secure that it’s not within our bailiwick to address it at this time.”
Katie Palmer, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church, and is closing in on two years as a Board member, said, “The accusation is that the City hasn’t followed through on properly zoning. We’re confident that we are.”
Palmer agreed that it’s in the city’s hands at this point, and said, “It really, at this point, doesn’t have anything to do directly with us because his communications are with the City.”
Meanwhile the facility recently received a $30,000 donation from Habitat for Humanity to install a modern fire sprinkler system.
Samaritan’s impact on Las Vegas community
A review of Samaritan data for 2017 indicates results generated by the nonprofit’s provision of food, shelter, and low-priced household goods through its thrift store.
A total of 272 vouchers were issued to client patronizing the store, and another 461 persons obtained necessities there.
Stable housing was provided to 86 people. Through its Food Pantry program, 763 households received food, while another 1,540 individuals obtained food.
McDonough said the location has drawn many more people than what occurred at its previous Grand Avenue site. The increase in services has also been a result in trying to meet those needs.
“There are so many good things going on here,” she said. “It almost makes me grieve that there’s protest of some sort about us being here.”
Lyon called what Mirza is pursuing a distraction. He has ensured that everything is in order for a correct response when needed; he’s been in regular contact with one of the city’s contract attorneys, Danelle Smith.
“We just wanted to make sure and we did confirm with our architect that we have done everything that is legally required,” he said. “We’ve got all the permits, they’ve been recorded. We’re in the right zoning for this type of activity. We feel good to go. It’s just a matter of how they’re going to deal with him is the issue.”