A Capitol Idea

Phoenix Community Alliance's new plan for the Capitol Mall sends the homeless scrambling while the city looks the other way

"If Goddard hadn't come along, we might still be arguing where to put this thing," says Orton. "But it happened because he was willing to put some political backbone into it."

Yet that hardly softened the fierceness of the debate. State legislators representing south and central Phoenix warned the city not to follow its usual pattern of dumping problems in south Phoenix, saying, in effect, that it was time for other parts of the city to share the burden.

"It was really a brilliant strategy," says Phoenix zoning attorney Jay Dushoff, who opposed locating the shelter on the shared front doorstep of the city and state and subsequently represented local businesses who unsuccessfully opposed extending a use permit for CASS. "Because it essentially challenged Terry to prove how liberal he really was. The point being, if you're a racist, you'll dump this in south Phoenix. If you're not, you'll put it north of the tracks."

It went north of the tracks.
Since then, city officials and downtown interests have occasionally floated the idea of moving the homeless to one or more city-owned sites near the river bottom, or farther west of downtown.

But Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza says, "That's simply not practical. The reality is that these facilities are incredibly hard to locate."

Given the not-in-my-backyard ruckus stirred up recently by the potential relocation of the state fair, it isn't difficult to imagine the furor that dispersing CASS would arouse.

"The reality," says Phoenix City Councilman Doug Lingner, who chairs the council's Housing and Neighborhoods subcommittee, "is that any time we start talking about moving these facilities, the NIMBY problem will be there."

City officials concede that fear of stirring it up is among the chief reasons the mall has evolved into a de facto management or containment district for homelessness.

"I don't think we can make it go away," says Rimsza. "The practical reality is that we need to focus on managing these areas so they aren't the blight, or that they aren't something that deters investment or creates security concerns for employees."

The city has done that in other neighborhoods by imposing restrictions preventing the massing of people one sees on Madison Street.

For example, the city's winter overflow shelter, in a warehouse on Watkins Street, located south of Interstate 17 along Seventh Avenue, doesn't permit walk-ins. People are bused there from a lot adjacent to the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall on Madison. And to receive $205,000 in federal block grant funds for its $5 million campus of services on Watkins Street, east of Seventh Avenue, which opened in 1994, St. Vincent de Paul promised the city that it would continue using Madison Street as its main dining hall so long as the CASS shelter remained in the area.

It doesn't take long on a hot September evening for the aroma of hot dogs and chili being served at Andre House to be smothered by the sour smell of sweat and unwashed clothes. As the first of several hundred indigent men and women file into this converted warehouse at 11th Avenue and Jackson Street, tray their meals and head to the long rows of tables and chairs, an ammonia stink fumes the room and stings the eyes. They've eaten more recently and more often than they've bathed.

Most had lunch at what everyone refers to as St. Vinnie's. Few, if any, had breakfast. A handful--usually those who work without pocket money during the day--haven't eaten since the previous night. Many will spend the night at CASS.

After a day of chasing shade, the beleaguered crowd seems more thirsty than hungry. Part of the stench in the room is the sickly half-sweet odor of dehydration. The men and women gulp down the first pour of juice and quickly lift their paper cups for seconds and thirds. Then, heads down, they dig in.

Few in the crowd of mostly white men--skins burned red or roasted a leathery rouge--are here to savor the food. Many of them eat quickly, then head out the door and circle back around the building for another pass at the steam table. A handful pause at the vestibule by the door that contains a table with devotional candles and a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to jot down a name on a yellow legal pad and light a candle.

"One of the nice things about being here," says Daniel Robinson, "is that it's about the only place you can just sit and relax and get out of the heat."

A thin black man with a wispy beard in his late 40s, Robinson has lived on and off the street since 1994. He says he has dinner at Andre House just about every one of the six nights of the week it's open, and lunch at St. Vinnie's every day. He avoids staying at CASS because he doesn't like the imposed schedule of having to get up and out by 7:30 a.m. And the head-to-toe barracks arrangement is a Petri dish of sick and coughing men. He prefers sleeping in empty lots around town.

"There are a lot of people out here who are what I'd call just passing through a bad phase of life," he says. "And I think maybe that's most of them. They just come and go. You could say I'm one of the ones who's out here because I want to be."

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