Paul's Note - October 1, 2021

“This dance doesn’t work.” 

That was what was told to a member of my staff by a TPD officer that works with the homeless population. He’s right. 

Our Homeless Protocol team consists of TPD officers and social workers. The “dance” he referred to is this: the team makes contact with a homeless camp somewhere and asks them to move on. Sometimes they don’t (and can be subject to arrest), and when they do, it is often to another neighborhood near by and the police get called again to ask them to move on. 

If crimes are being committed, our officers can deal with that. In most cases, contact is a chance for social service agencies to offer help and outreach.  

Being homeless is not a crime, thus the police cannot arrest someone for being homeless. Some people are under the misunderstanding that there is a vagrancy law on the books. There isn’t. Even the laws we have are difficult to enforce. Do you slap a fine on a homeless person? Issue a ticket? Send them to jail at a cost of $92 per night? 

The practicality of enforcing those laws is only one problem. Another is how do you in good conscience tell a person that they can’t sleep somewhere when our community doesn’t offer enough safe places for them to go? This isn’t just a humanitarian question, but a legal one. In 2018, the Ninth Circuit, the federal court that holds sway over Arizona, ruled in a case called Martin v City of Boise that local governments can’t enforce anti-camping ordinances if there is not enough shelter space or other options. 

Clearly, we need more shelter space in Tucson, as well as affordable housing. It could take years to ramp that up, however. The question becomes, what do we do in the meantime? 

The officers and social workers that have done homeless outreach have given me a surprising solution: sanctioned camping. This would be several locations around town where camping is allowed. The police would have a much easier situation to enforce and social service agencies would be better able track down people that need their services. I think this idea needs a lot more study before we would consider it; we’d need to make sure that property and our neighborhoods are protected. A program in Denver that was started last year has earned positive reviews from neighbors after some fierce opposition when it started. 

If Tucson were to do something similar, it would be a stopgap solution. We need to do all we can to get people the mental health and social services they need and, most importantly, get housed. 

My colleagues and I this week voted to give relief to 3300 families that have had troubles paying their water bills because of COVID. Many of these families are already on payment plans. This includes residents both in and out of city limits. This was made possible due to federal COVID relief money. I’m glad we could make this small gesture to help out our neighbors that have been struggling.