Safe Park– the homeless camp located on the sidewalks of downtown Tucson– has been a political hot potato since a Tucson District Court ruled the sidewalk protest was protected speech in December 2014. With that ruling, Safe Park grew and coffin-like boxes called “dream pods” started rolling in–much to the dismay of city and county leaders and local businesses.
Debates raged– in the Arizona Daily Star, on Facebook, on the streets, and in multiple Tucson Mayor and Council meetings– about the validity Safe Park as a “protest”, the moral character of the primary leader, the overarching problem of homelessness, and what the city could or should do about the situation. Park residents and the City Council have been in negotiations to move Safe Park from the sidewalks of the Rio Nuevo business district to another a vacant lot within a mile of downtown, where this homeless community could camp and have access to bathrooms and showers. Safe Park Director and long-time homeless spokesperson, Jon McClane had asked for a homeless camp in each ward, but said that they were willing to move if the city could find a spot not far from downtown.
As the search for a suitable city-owned lot continued, recent developments have changed the political landscape. Police conducted a sting drug operation near Veinte de Agosto Park and arrested McClane and others on charges of possession of marijuana and possession for sale. The Arizona Daily Star. continued its character assassination against McClain, dredging up stories about his children and painting him as a charismatic opportunist, rather than a crusader. The US District Court Judge, who initially called Safe Park protected speech, issued a clarification that allows the city to remove the dream pods and tents. The latest news is that Safe Park dream pods and tents must be removed by Friday, March 13.
This blog post isn’t about the ongoing homeless controversy or the integrity of any of the leaders. It’s about the people I met at Safe Park last Thursday night.
It was dinner time on a chilly, windy evening. Initially, I went to Safe Park to snap a few photos to use with my blog posts, but I ended up talking with some residents and with Associate Director Maggie Downey. Most of the people I saw were young– late teens or early 20s– and many of them were women. Yes, I smelled pot in the vicinity of the county building, I saw a young woman covered with meth scars with a well-dressed young man who may have been her pimp, and I observed some who could be helped by medication.
Safe Park is the underbelly of our society. Homeless encampments like Safe Park are the modern-day Hoovervilles, shantytowns that sprang up around the country during the Great Depression. These people have turned to each other because society has turned them away. Residents complain about being yelled at and spit on. They’re understandably paranoid about outsiders because of the treatment they have received on the streets.Capitalism doesn’t have a use for people without money.
Regardless of what you have read about Safe Park, it is a community with a purpose and a mission. Tucson doesn’t have enough beds for its homeless citizens, and none of the shelters allow people to stay indefinitely– except Safe Park. In fact, the homeless don’t get more than one night at a time at local shelters. Getting a bed for one night with no guarantee that you’ll have a bed for the coming night is highly disruptive.
According to Downey, who has worked in other homeless shelters and volunteered with AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, Safe Park is the third largest shelter in Tucson, serving 75 people a night. They have a “shelter first” policy, which emphasizes helping people stabilize their housing situation before encouraging them to find employment, medical or mental health services, or help with addiction. Safe Park is the only Tucson shelter that offers the stability of a long-term stay. It allows residents live there as long as they want– eliminating the need to trudge around town all day with your belongs on your back, looking for food and a bed. What kind of a life is this?
As I have written previously, this problem is not going away. If anything, it will get worse before it gets better. With the extreme austerity budget pushed by Governor Doug Ducey and the Republicans in the Arizona Legislature, the ranks of the homeless in Arizona will grow. The belt-tightening austerity measures for the populace coupled with a pro-business, anti-regulation attitude during the Coolidge/Hoover Era brought on the Wall Street crash, the Great Depression, and Hooverville homeless camps across the country.
Other western cities are experimenting with “shelter first” homeless policies with combine camping, tiny houses, and other alternatives. Tucson is funneling a significant amount of money through non-profit agencies to help the homeless, but it is not enough. I am heartened that Bishop Kicanas is working on this.
Before I left Safe Park last week, a hurried, middle-aged woman walked up to Downey and me on Church Street. She was shuttling a domestic violence victim and her two boys, who had been turned away from a shelter. They had fled their home and didn’t have a place for the night. The woman, who looked like an indigenous Central American, had a blanket over her shoulders and dragged an old rolling suitcase behind her; the boys were in t-shirts. She was silent as the two activists discussed where she could go with her two boys– a pre-teen with autism and a pre-kindergartener. I didn’t understand how she could be turned away from a shelter, unless they weren’t equipped for family groups or special needs children.
I stood silent as the four walked off into the darkness. What would happen to this woman, I wondered as I walked to my car.
A few days later, I saw a Facebook post with her and her boys pictured (with faces blurred). There was a plea for someone to help her. They were still wandering the streets of Tucson. Can’t we do better than this? I hope the city makes good on its promise to find a camping space for Safe Park. I believe they are providing a much-needed service.