Two Arizona cities among 20 ‘meanest to homeless’ in America

National Coalition for the Homeless issued their annual report ‘A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities’ for 2006 which names Flagstaff (#10) and Phoenix (#17) among the 20 meanest cities in America.

Some of the most serious problems that the homeless face are the lack of social services, the lack of affordable housing, and the outlawing of the very status of homelessness by criminalizing or otherwise restricting ‘urban camping’, loitering, panhandling, busking, open-air feedings, and other activities associated with homelessness.

Each city named in the top 20 has a narrative account that explains how they were selected to be on the list.

Flagstaff’s reads:

Soon anyone camping or sleeping in a car or in public within the Flagstaff city limits may be subject to trespassing and camping violations, totaling up to $2,500 in fines and six months in jail time.  The current ordinance’s wording only allows prosecution of people arrested in city parks.  City Attorney Patricia Boomsma supports the new, stricter ordinance, because “[…] prosecutors need to prosecute the person actually doing the camping.”  The proposed ordinance aims to eliminate litter, human waste, and illicit campfires.  According to Flagstaff chief of police, J.T. McCann, the ordinance is intended to promote public safety.  However, local service providers, such as Stephanie Boardman of Hope Cottage, believe these ordinances are counter-productive, especially to the domestic violence victims that Hope Cottage takes in.  Boardman said, “A lot of them are embarrassed to go to shelters. They just want their freedom. You penalize the people in crisis because 10, 15, 20 people are really causing an upheaval.”  While Flagstaff law enforcement officials have written 162 citations for camping, all charges were dropped because camping is not yet illegal in the city.

And Phoenix reads:

The Phoenix City Council voted to ban camping in all city parks in order to preserve the parks as “family places” in December 2004.  The measure was aimed at keeping homeless people from areas where children and others gather.  Even though few of the homeless people caused trouble, “many people are intimidated by the homeless and won’t use the park.”  Homeless advocates argued that the ordinance would not solve the problem.  According to Jeff Taylor of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, “If you close the parks, homeless individuals will gravitate to another area.  This will squeeze individuals into other areas where they may be more invisible.”  The Executive Director of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Jerry Sandvig, doesn’t see any alternative with such an overwhelming homeless population in Phoenix, saying, “There really isn’t any place for them to go."

Not all the news is bad, however. Several cities around the nation have model programs that are addressing the problems of those who have fallen into poverty and homelessness in the Bush’s ever more inequitable economy.

Many communities have formed outreach teams that pair community-policing trained officers with a civilian partner who was formerly homeless and often trained in crisis intervention and psychiatric evaluation to make contact and encourage access to services. Training to raise awareness of the problems faced by the homeless and to teach the most effective ways to address those problems have been made manditory at some police departments.

Some communities have created day centers to give homeless people a place to access vital services such as laundry, health care, meals, hygene, psychiatric care, and legal, employment, and housing counseling, substance abuse treatment and case management. San Diego is now bringing the legal system into homeless shelters. Though often ticketed for misdeamor offenses, many of the homeless, struggling with daily survival, do not have the resources to inerface normally with the criminal justice system. Warrants and accumulating fines compound their legal troubles. The Homeless Court Program brings the court to the shelters once a month to help resolve such issues before they cause incarceration, which can prevent access to needed services and programing needed to escape from homelessness.

Arizona is, for obvious reasons, a favored place to winter for people who are both homeless and peripatetic. Rather than reacting to the challenge that this population poses to public order with criminalization, Arizona cities should be responding in a constructive fashion, seeking to help our fellow citizens to address their troubles and get back on their feet. We should aim to remove Arizona’s cities from the list of the 20 meanest in America.