Effects of panhandling crackdown still being felt
by Dianna M. Náñez - Jul. 17, 2009 04:54 PM
The Arizona Republic
In the wake of a June police crackdown on aggressive panhandling in downtown Tempe that netted 30 arrests, charities, churches and Tempe officials are continuing efforts to provide services for the homeless who frequent Mill Avenue.
But the weak economy has pushed more people into living on the streets or left them struggling to make ends meet, making it more difficult to meet the growing needs.
A Maricopa Association of Governments annual January count found that there were 2,918 people on the streets compared with 2,426 last year. The number of people younger than 18 jumped 280 percent to 220 from 58. Those numbers do not include the thousands of people in Valley shelters.
While Tempe's Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program, or I-HELP recently expanded its overnight shelter program to seven nights a week, there are always more homeless waiting for a space to sleep than there are beds.
I-HELP was launched when a group of local churches decided to fill the need for a homeless shelter in Tempe. Churches volunteer their space for one night a week to give homeless people a place to take cover for the night.
Tempe Police Department's June "Downtown Enforcement Campaign" came in response to calls from a downtown business organization that said it was fielding increased complaints about aggressive panhandling.
Tempe police made the arrests during a four-day operation that included uniformed and undercover officers. Four arrests were for panhandling, 16 for public liquor-law violations, one for the sale of narcotics, a felony-burglary warrant and five for various city-code violations.
Nancy Hormann, president of Downtown Tempe Community Inc., an organization that manages downtown for area landowners, said that since the police operation aggressive panhandling has declined.
"It's so much better," she said. "We weren't targeting the homeless. We just wanted to stop people who were breaking the law."
While Tempe officers say the crackdown was necessary, some church and charity leaders say they wish police would have allowed charities to reach out to the homeless to curb aggressive panhandling instead of arresting people in need.
Tempe police stress that the enforcement was a small part of the community policing efforts they manage in an urban area that has long been known for its homeless population.
Derek Pittam, a Tempe police officer, has worked in the downtown area for a decade.
In those years, Pittam has made friends with many of the people living on the streets.
This week, Pittam was talking to two people he had not seen before on Mill Avenue. He was distributing cards with information about Tempe services for the homeless and the panhandling law.
Dale LeMar,36, and his fiancé Sabrena Gorla, 26, were getting to know the officer and explaining their story.
The couple left their Phoenix apartment in June, after falling behind in their rent and having their power turned off
LeMar was working as a handyman but jobs grew harder to find as the economy declined.
LeMar was homeless years ago. But after winning his battle with substance abuse, he thought those days were behind him.
"You know, I think this economy is like the Depression-people are really starting to realize they are one paycheck away from being homeless," he said.
LeMar does small jobs for his apartment, so he said the manager has told the couple that if they can get back on their feet, they can have their apartment back.
With the economy faltering, hard-luck stories like LeMar's are common.
Still, Pittam said the increase in aggressive panhandling and in public intoxication needed to be stopped.
"This is also for the safety of our homeless population," he stressed.
Dave "Stickman" Cortiama, 50, has lived on the downtown streets for nearly a decade.
He also noticed the recent change downtown, and said he thinks light rail has made it easier for criminals to visit Mill.
Cortiama supported the police enforcement but does not think it should be a regular thing.
"The criminals and thieves give us (homeless) a bad name," he said.
To help educate the homeless who may not understand panhandling laws, and help avoid arrests, LeMar and Gorla suggested that Tempe blow up the service cards Pittam was handing out and post them in business windows.
"Arresting people who need help isn't the answer," he said. "There are homeless people like us who aren't doing anything wrong. We put out a donation bucket and if people want to help us they can. The police don't bother us when we do that. You just can't be harassing people."
Some social-services experts say the increase in homelessness on Mill is also due to the area's reputation.
"Across the nation people know . . . (Tempe) is a place where homeless are treated with kindness," said Jana Smith, a program manager for Tumbleweed. Tumbleweed is a non-profit that provides a resource center near downtown Tempe for young homeless people. The facility provides food, clothing, other basic necessities and social services aimed at keeping youth safe while they are living on the streets and at helping get them off the streets permanently.
With the homeless problem far from being solved, Smith stressed that community partnerships involving faith organizations, municipalities, public safety, charities and businesses are more important now than ever.
"If we all continue to do the work that we are doing then hopefully we can educate the (homeless) individuals that are causing these issues and the public who are unfamiliar with the homeless," she said. "There is definitely a perception that homeless people are scary but most of them are just like you and me. I don't want anybody to be scared of our kids because I know these kids and they're not scary."