After largely ignoring a homeless camp on the western edge of the burgeoning downtown entertainment district for three months, city officials say it’s time to shut it down — weeks before the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show hits town.
The camp at Veinte de Agosto Park, with its up to 50 residents and assorted boxes of belongings, offers a stark contrast to the picture painted by city and civic leaders when they extol the revitalized downtown.
Downtown merchants have grown weary of the situation. They complained to the city about aggressive panhandling and other unruliness to no avail, until Friday, when the City Manager’s Office said it directed the area be cleared to prepare for the gem show.
Those at the camp, at West Congress and South Church Avenue, said they just want a safe place to sleep.
Until this weekend, Tucson Police Department officers have just monitored the activity of those who sprawl out nightly along the sidewalk between two streetcar stops and the site of a city information booth for next month’s gem show.
While officers will arrest people who violate the law, as long as a person leaves enough space for pedestrians to cross, they’re allowed to sit or lie on the sidewalk, said Lt. Maria Hawke, downtown division patrol commander.
“We will always address crime as it occurs,” Hawke said. “In respect to the homeless or anyone else who’s been frequenting that location, we’re not targeting them.”
On the advice of the City Attorney’s Office, TPD has allowed people to sleep on the sidewalks and has arrested only those who violate laws such as drinking in public, drug use or violent crimes.
Hawke said crime had not “spiked” since the people started gathering at the park.
But on Friday, in an email response to a Star question about the park, the manager’s office said that while TPD has exercised discretion and let the homeless sleep on the sidewalk, it was directing the department to start clearing out the park.
The email noted the city code allows people to gather in the sidewalk area and exercise First Amendment rights as long as they do not obstruct the sidewalk areas, but it also says they “cannot sit or lay down in the sidewalk area between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.”
The email says: “Homeless individuals will be advised of available resources that will help address their current needs such as shelters, food and health care. After this process is completed, the park will be secured and prepared for the programming planned for the gem show.”
City Manager Richard Miranda was not available Friday to comment on why his office waited more than 100 days to ask TPD to clear the park even though the email said the office was aware of downtown businesses, workers and visitors complaining about aggressive panhandling and litter.
The email also said a number of people had told city workers they were reluctant to walk on the sidewalk in front of the park because of the homeless gathered there.
TPD officials couldn’t confirm if they received the order as of Friday evening.
HOW did IT HAPPEN?
The camp started about three months ago when former Occupy Tucson member Jon McLane, 30, decided to address what he considers a serious issue afflicting the area’s homeless.
“The big thing that we saw with the whole Occupy movement was between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. there is nowhere in the city of Tucson where people have the legal right to sleep,” said McLane, who is homeless and stays at the park.
So he and his group, Occupy Public Land, started the Safe Park Project Oct. 1.
“I guess more or less they allowed us to start sleeping there on the sidewalk at Veinte de Agosto,” he said.
Since then, the park has become a refuge for folks who don’t fit in at a traditional shelter, many of which have strict rules. McLane accuses them of accepting only the “cream of the homeless population.”
“They don’t let in the people who, over the course of their life, made a lot of bad decisions, or have serious mental health or drug issues, and need a lot of work to get back to what we would consider regular,” he said. “The shelters in Tucson are not there to be a fix.”
A group of business people, social service providers, police and city representatives have been meeting with McLane and others over the past month to hash out a resolution.
“There’s very intense focus on this issue,” said Michael Keith, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. “But it’s a very complicated social issue … so it’s going to take time.”
The group is creating a pamphlet to identify all the social services and shelters available in the downtown area.
Keith hopes if some of the occupants are made aware of what’s available, they might get off the street.
Merchants would like to see the city take care of the matter, Keith said.
McLane said city officials have ignored the plight of the homeless for too long, and the park serves as a grassroots solution.
“We’re trying to fill a gap where one exists,” he said. “And what you’re seeing at Safe Park is the first steps in trying to fill that gap.”
He said they would continue to use the park until the city comes up with alternative solutions.
Last week, McLane said, the group submitted an application for a vendor’s license to sell arts and crafts created by park occupants, which he said would provide people with a sense of purpose and offer them some constructive activities.
One of the ultimate goals, he said, is to earn enough money to operate a 24-hour community center of their own within the city.
The city’s Planning and Development Services Department director, Ernie Duarte, said his office has yet to receive any application.