A Capitol Idea

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

Experts have a difficult time pinning down what percentage of homeless people are capable, as Robinson is, of working, but simply don't.

Holleran and others say it's clearly a minority. He estimates that about a quarter of the homeless suffer from mental illness. A significant number of the balance have substance-abuse problems. Many of the homeless in the Capitol Mall suffer from both.

"I'm not a very religious or spiritual person," says Holleran, "but if people wind up homeless down here, it's safe to say that their families aren't functioning in some way."

Robinson says he has more or less drifted away from his family. "I've got plenty of family back on the East Coast," he says. "But I'm not good with people."

A sometime artist, he painted a mural in the family dining room at Andre House. He's trying to put together a studio with a friend and resume working. He eventually wants to retire to a log cabin in the mountains and have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to go into town and buy sculpture supplies. He wants to leave his work for his family, "so they can see what I've done and say, 'So that's what he was trying to do. That's what he was about.'"

In the meantime, the Darwinian world of downtown street life offers all he needs in the way of satisfactions and challenges.

"If you can get around the survival thing and learn to survive real quick, and learn how to make the best of a bad situation, you find there's a lot of fun, a lot of excitement on the street. We have a joke out here that sitting out there by St. Vinnie's at night is like looking at a big-screen TV."

It's a show that many of the area's business owners no longer want to see.
"It's very difficult to try and run a business here," says Ruth Harlan, co-owner with her husband, Les, of The Harlan Company, a heating, cooling and sheet-metal wholesaler that has been on Madison Street since the 1920s. "Customers are always asking why in the world we stay. But we own the building. If I were on a lease, I'd be out of here tomorrow."

She says that she and other business owners in the area feel besieged. Burglaries are constant. Customers have things stolen from vehicles. Waves of people use her property as a latrine. Tires are punctured by discarded syringes; fights, drug deals and prostitution are daily sights.

Jim Morlan, a neighbor of Harlan's who runs Electric Supply Incorporated and sits on the CASS board of directors, says that he and others are particularly troubled by the conditions surrounding what's known as the homeless post office, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Madison.

"That's where you see a real concentration of people," he says. "They tend to wait for the office to open, and they are hanging about, and so it affects the area around it. The first week of the month, when food stamps and assistance checks arrive, is especially bad."

On most days, the sidewalk outside the post office is a gauntlet of infirm, insane, drugged-out and streetwise people. Early in the month, people can be seen swapping food stamps for crack and other drugs, or selling them for pocket change. Belongings are piled or stuffed into a train of shopping carts that runs nearly the full block length of the dingy gray building.

Daniel Robinson and others familiar with the street say that in addition to the black market that thrives there, the building's shaded north wall is one of the few in the area where the police don't bother them.

Tammy Bosse, who heads the Capitol Mall Association, says neighbors have complained about conditions around the building to the postal service, which contracts the post office operation to a local business. But nothing has happened.

"All we're trying to do is get them to require that the place be maintained as a clean, safe building," Bosse says. "We also want them to look at maybe handling the mail deliveries in a different way, so that you don't have people hanging around like that all day long."

A postal-service official who is new to the job of overseeing the contract says she's unaware of any complaints. However, she acknowledges that similar problems occur at all of the post offices around the state that hold general delivery mail.

Morlan and others say the meanness and dereliction of the scene reflects the control that predators among the dispossessed have over the area.

"As much as these predators make life difficult for those of us running businesses here," he says, "they make life even more difficult for the homeless."

Nancy Spencer of St. Vincent de Paul agrees. "There's no question that there's a mean spirit down there now that didn't used to be there."

Sergeant Robert Jones, who heads the Phoenix Police Department's neighborhood response unit for the Capitol Mall, attributes the change to the rise of drug problems in the area.

Although Phoenix PD's informal count of the downtown homeless population shows a decline--from a peak of about 1,200 in 1989 to 400 to 600 today--that drop has coincided with a dramatic influx of hard-core drugs and predators.

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