Tucson’s downtown homeless camp upgraded its amenities last week by adding portable shelters — to the consternation of city officials.
Five oblong wooden boxes lined the sidewalk along Church Avenue Monday morning between Congress Street and Broadway.
City officials say they are aware of the structures and the continuing evolution of that stretch of sidewalk, and the adjacent streetcar stop, into something of a mini-subdivision.
They say they are considering a response, but are limited by a federal injunction ordering them to allow people to sleep on that stretch of sidewalk as long as there is space for pedestrians to pass.
Occupy Public Land activist Jon McLane, who has been leading a protest against what he considers government mistreatment of the homeless at Veinte de Agosto Park since October 2013, said the “dream pods” are the next step in transforming the park into a “one-stop shop” for protests and homeless services.
He said visitors downtown can look forward to upgrades to the camp, with sofas, a recliner and clothing racks that will soon be brought in.
I want to create “a real similar aesthetic set-up with what we saw with Occupy Tucson where it had a welcome tent, a medic area and even a computer station,” he said.
Initially the boxes, which were donated by a 91-year-old Tombstone artist/activist, were intended for a different purpose, McLane said.
“The intention was to have them be big signs so there’s no question what we’re protesting,” McLane said. The artist’s “intention with them 30 years ago was to do a sidewalk protest like we are doing. So he gave us a whole bunch of them and we decorated them.”
But McLane realized the boxes could serve a dual purpose.
“We have the Dream Center, (located at Central City Assembly Church, 939 S. Tenth Ave.), which is a men’s shelter where we can sleep a dozen guys,” McLane said. “But we don’t have a place for women or couples. So these boxes out here can accommodate women and couples.”
All the dream pods have couples living in them, except McLane’s single-occupancy pod, he said.
City officials say before they take action, they must figure out how to balance their response within the boundaries of a court order.
“We have to navigate the judge’s injunction and decide what public safety issues exist, now that the boxes are there,” said City Attorney Mike Rankin. “There are other people who want to use the sidewalk, the park and the streetcar stop” at Church Avenue and Congress Street.
Last month U.S. District Court Judge David Bury granted McLane and fellow activist John Cooper an injunction preventing police from arresting homeless people for possessing more than three items
The injunction also reinforced the right to sleep and protest on the park’s sidewalk after it closed for the night, as long as at least five feet of sidewalk space remained open for others to pass.
Activists started the camp to give homeless people who choose not to use one of the traditional shelters a safe place to sleep.
As last year’s gem show approached, police tried to prevent the homeless from sleeping in the park, but McLane and Cooper argued the city was violating people’s First Amendment right to protest homelessness.
Last January, the city accepted that argument and allowed the homeless to continue sleeping on the sidewalk as long as they kept no more than a blanket, a bedroll and a beverage, and left at least five feet of unobstructed sidewalk.
Rankin said city officials will confer this week to decide what to do about the pods, but is being cautious as it waits for an appeal of the injunction order to be heard.
The Church Street encampment is one of two along the west leg of the city’s new downtown streetcar line.
Just a few steps away, dozens of homeless now sleep along the north side of West Congress Street, in bus shelters, in makeshift tents and under the pedestrian bridge linking La Placita Village to the nearby government complex.
Trash, blankets and garbage bags filled with personal items dominate the sidewalk under the Pima County Administration Building.
While that length of sidewalk isn’t covered by the injunction, Rankin said the city is approaching it in a similar manner and city officials will also decide on it.
Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @DarrenDaRonco