Steller: Tucson must avoid Forum Fatigue, start to act

2014-02-23T00:00:00Z 2014-02-24T10:10:06Z Steller: Tucson must avoid Forum Fatigue, start to actTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You can’t blame Tucsonans who are suffering from Forum Fatigue.

Concerned residents of our metro area have hosted so many fora about local issues in recent years that we’re growing a new vocabulary for these events: “Visioning exercise,” “charette,” “community interactive.”

Amazingly and impressively, there are still plenty of Tucsonans willing to fill an auditorium or a meeting room to hear others hash out topics as intractable as Tucson’s problems with poverty and homelessness.

We know this because on Feb. 12, a Wednesday night, about 600 people went to the Fox Tucson Theatre downtown for an event where a former National Public Radio host and a panel of Tucsonans discussed our area’s working poor and how to help them. Then, three days later, on Feb. 15 — a beautiful Saturday afternoon — I moderated an event in the downtown library’s basement meeting room, where a standing-room-only crowd of perhaps 150 discussed homelessness in Tucson and new ideas to address it.

The continued enthusiasm for these earnest get-togethers is a credit to Tucsonans and their concern for their neighbors. But we all should wonder how long it will be before Forum Fatigue spreads, and how to avoid it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of antidotes to FF that I learned from these events. One is getting affected people involved, and the other is moving from talk to action.

The forum I moderated Saturday was organized by Jon McLane of the Safe Park group that has fought the city to ensure homeless people can sleep on the sidewalk along Church Ave. downtown, next to Veinte de Agosto Park. The eight-person panel included at least three people who have been homeless, and quite a few audience members who have been or remain homeless.

Among them were Terri Franco and George Chandler, two of the people who share a camp along the banks of the Santa Cruz River, whom I wrote about for my Feb. 12 column. During the Q-and-A session, Chandler, who is 68, spoke to the forum crowd and got choked up as he explained how he expected the event to be a bunch of bull but was happily surprised.

“It opened my eyes,” Chandler told me Monday, two days after the event, as we sat with Franco under the big branching tamarisk tree they call home. “It made me feel good. It made me glad so much is going on to help the homeless.

“You had guys on that panel who were homeless,” he added. “They know what we’re going through.”

He and Franco were especially interested in a proposal discussed by Michele Ream, who does outreach work for Primavera Services, and Michael Keith of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. They’ve been talking about ways to group some cheap forms of housing, such as $1,000-a-piece, Conestoga-type huts, on a downtown-area property to house homeless people and perhaps work right there.

Franco and Chandler also were thrilled by panelist John Cooper’s enthusiastic insistence that homeless people have the same constitutional rights as anyone else. That may sound obvious, but homeless people are used to being treated otherwise.

“If people out here would just be compassionate and kind — the cruelness is unbelievable,” Franco said.

While Franco sometimes experiences cruelty — especially from groups of 12 to 16 year old boys, she said — a pretty high grade of compassion was also evident in the Fox Theatre event. That nine-member panel was made up mostly of well-known local social-service providers and hosted by former NPR radio star Neal Conan.

“We love this place, and we’re compassionate for our friends our neighbors and colleagues,” said John Pedicone, a panelist who was superintendent of both the Tucson Unified School District and Flowing Wells School District. “The mayor did form a commission on poverty, we’re having those conversations. It’s just not enough yet.”

Veteran Tucson social-service providers were onstage at the Fox, and delved into some pretty interesting ideas, such as “social impact bonds.” These financing mechanisms allow outside investors to put money into services that help needy people, with the promise of a return on their investment from the applicable government or social agency if people are helped as promised.

Still, the absence of business people, government officials and poor people on the stage was notable. Afterward, I walked out of the Fox Theatre as VIPs were going upstairs for a reception. I took a right and walked down to Church Avenue to remind myself of the sort of people this discussion was about. Homeless Tucsonans were settling into bed under gray blankets on the sidewalk.

Services are key for many of these people. Some have substance-abuse problems, mental illness or other health problems that will make it tough to support themselves without help.

But what all will need is a growing economy to provide both job opportunities and a healthy tax- and donor-base to fund those services. That key factor was essentially absent in both discussions and must be brought in if these fora are to produce tangible results.

“Unless we get business embedded, and they see this as their economic issue, I don’t see how much traction or capital or clout we’re going to get,” Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, told me last week. Overall, he said, “I don’t think we’ve quite found that leadership group to drive this forward.”

Let’s hurry up and drive this forward before Forum Fatigue sets in.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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