Captain America looks like hell. His faded blue nylon one-piece doesn’t match the richer-blue mask covering his face. The sewn-in stuffing in his chest is squished out of shape. His shield hangs low. One tourist here on the sidewalk at the corner of the Strip and Flamingo asks, “What are you?” He shrugs. He’s standing with the statue man—a performance artist of sorts who is spray-painted gold and posed rigidly behind a box where tourists drop one-dollar bills on occasion.
They’re not alone in trying to rustle up some cash at this intersection—it’s become a hot spot of sorts for panhandling. Up on one of the pedestrian bridges across the intersection is a young woman sitting on the cement with a little boy; they have a sign that says, “Homeless with 3 children, anything will help.” On another bridge, two long-haired old guys—one with a huge gash on his forehead—sit about 10 feet apart as the tourists go by. One’s torn cardboard sign says, “Help a BLVD biker vet”; the other’s is the classic, “Why lie, I need a beer.”
A few months ago, this corner turned into the scene of a beating, and ultimately a murder. According to news reports, a woman and her children were hawking bottled water in the afternoon when a nearby beggar with a pit bull began a verbal confrontation—apparently he wanted to beg the area by himself.
She called a family member, Steven Montoya, who showed up and beat the homeless man, 49-year-old Larry Minnich. Minnich later died from the hematoma near his eye. Montoya, 47, now faces charges of murder and battery.
“Larry was a homeless friend of mine,” says homeless advocate Gail Sacco. She said she regularly talked to him, his girlfriend and his dog, Concord, at a local park, and doesn’t believe he started the confrontation. Regardless, she says, “Since the murder, the guys at the park say that Metro has been shooing them away from the Strip. ... [A] couple of weeks ago, a team ... went down to the area of the murder and asked homeless people if they wanted to go to a shelter. When the homeless said no, Metro warned them to immediately move on or they would be arrested.
“I have also been told that this same area is one of the best areas for panhandling,” Sacco says. “[But] I do not believe there is an increase in panhandling. Maybe there are more newly homeless people panhandling, but I don’t believe that there is a high percentage of ‘chronic’ homeless panhandling.”
The ACLU says panhandling is considered protected speech. “Laws can prevent aggressive panhandling—harassment and coercion and the like. And there can be some time, place and manner restrictions,” says Allen Lichtenstein, an ACLU attorney. “An outright ban on panhandling on public sidewalks, however, would run into constitutional problems.”
Metro spokeswoman Barbara Morgan says that neither the water-sellers nor beggars should be setting up shop there. “You can’t sell [water] without a license. If you’re selling water, you need a business license just like anyone else doing business,” says Morgan. “The water thing has been going on a long time, but it’s basically illegal. Do we enforce it 100 percent of the time? No.”
Regarding beggars, she says, “They shouldn’t be there either; both are illegal.”
Today another homeless man is sitting atop that walkway, between Buffalo Bill’s Casino and Caesars, calling to tourists: “Hey girls, you got some cash?” and “Hola mija!” to a woman in a casino uniform, when two Metro officers on bikes come by.
“What are you doing here?” one of the yellow-shirted officers asks from atop the bike as he slows down.
“Nothin’,” he says, as he starts to get up, aware of this routine.
“You can’t stay here, better move along.”
The man groans and says something about his back hurting, and “I’m moving, I’m going,” before shuffling off and over to another bridge, where a woman with a baby stroller is digging through a garbage can and filling the stroller with aluminum. The cops ride off. Moments later an accordion player sets up on the parallel bridge across Flamingo, overlooking Tiffany and the Bellagio fountains, a few feet from the homeless woman and her son. He says he comes out here every day for at least three hours. Tourists park their kids next to him and take snapshots, the same way they do with the statue man and Captain America, but not the beggars with cardboard signs, and drop a coin or a buck.
“I love it here,” the street musician says. “It’s what I do.”