Street Without Hope

On Madison Street, crowds of crack-addicted homeless are plaguing police and downtown businesses. But no one seems to be doing much about it.

Policy makers aren't moving to fund necessary treatment programs, so the Phoenix police are providing their own brand of street treatment.

Since late February, officers from the Neighborhood Response Unit, which patrols the area, have been conducting what has become something of a semiannual "intensive enforcement" campaign around Madison Street.

The effort--which formally ends this month--began with the elimination of a tent city that had sprung up in January along the back of the Pioneer and Military Memorial Cemetery on Harrison Street. The nomad encampment housed as many as 50 people. Its multicolored tarps, sheets and crates, scavenged wood--some with two-shopping-cart garages--stretched along the fence from 12th Avenue to 15th Avenue. The first day was a banner day of arrests--20 for narcotics and 21 for camping and trespassing.

Since then, the 10-week crackdown has followed the pattern set by previous police efforts to clean up the area.

Usually billed as "zero tolerance," and "intensive enforcement" campaigns or sweeps, these cleanup efforts have lasted anywhere from several days to several weeks. The gains have been just as short-term.

One two-week campaign in 1996 yielded 55 felony arrests, mostly for drug crimes, and more than 150 misdemeanor arrests--for camping, trespassing and other minor violations. A two-day crackdown in 1997 netted 33 drug arrests and eight on lesser charges. A third action last year resulted in 58 felony arrests--most for drug-related crimes--and 200 misdemeanors.

Through last week, the tally from the current effort was 58 narcotics arrests, 114 for camping and trespassing, and 82 for other charges. Like previous cleanups, this one has lost steam over time.

"If there is a zero-tolerance program going on, you sure wouldn't know it," says Jim Morlan, who owns the Electric Supply Company down the block from Vinnies and serves on the board of CASS.

He says the drug action between Eighth and Ninth avenues, in front of Vinnies and the post office, is back to where it was before the crackdown began.

Yet Morlan, like many in the area, doesn't fault the police. He's convinced that unless substance abuse is tackled at the street level by more than just cops, the addicts and crowds will only wind up shuffling off to some other neighborhood once the commercial development that downtown business leaders have been pushing finally arrives.

"Without getting the money needed to do things like drug treatment," he adds, "there isn't a lot of hope for these folks."

It's a little after 10 p.m. For several hours, officers Dave Laslavic, 40, and Dave Wilson, 32, both five-year veterans of the Phoenix Police Department, have been playing cat-and-mouse with the drug dealers on Madison, and giving wake-up calls to homeless people sleeping on makeshift bedrolls beneath the "no trespassing" signs posted on nearly every building.

Just about everyone they encounter knows the routine. Pick up the cardboard, pick up the food and blankets and move it, move it, move it. True veterans of the area begin folding up the cardboard they use for beds at the first sight of the patrol car.

At the moment, Laslavic and Wilson are less concerned about moving the addicts and sleeping campers along than with seeing whether they can nab some dealers. From a few blocks west, they've been watching the milling crowds at Ninth and Madison build into the clusters that signal the arrival of crack.

"What we usually find with a lot of the dealers down here," says Wilson, peering through binoculars, "is one's holding narcotics, one's holding cash, and one's holding a weapon. They usually run in threes. And there's usually somebody standing on the corner as a lookout."

Laslavic, behind the wheel, adds, "A lot of times they bring the rock cocaine down by bicycle. As you see, everybody huddles around them and they'll pass it out to individuals. They usually shave a piece of the rock off and smoke it, then sell the rest and come back with the money."

Dealers like to pull the end caps off a bicycle's handlebars and stuff the rock down the tube. They also try to throw police surveillance off by wearing Dallas Cowboys and other sports jerseys they can shed to a friend after they make a few deals.

"Most of the people we arrest with significant quantities seem to have Mexican ties," says Wilson. "We get a lot of undocumented folks. "The story's always the same with the dealers down here: 'I got the stuff from someone else.' So it's relatively easy to make small busts. But it's difficult to get beyond this street level to the large quantities of crack--the bricks."

Police and others say that many of the homeless addicts help dealers by holding the money or waving buyers in from the street.

"We're not talking about employment here, where money's going to exchange hands," says Sergeant Rusty Chlarson, a 31-year police veteran who patrols Madison Street and the shelter area. "Often their profit in the transaction is a little chip off the rock. The money goes to the dealer, the guy that's actually provided them with the product."

Laslavic and Wilson, who've been working the shelter area for about 15 months, say that every so often the police are able to put a dent in the drug traffic on Madison. Business had been relatively slow over the winter months. But the closure of the city's winter overflow shelter late in March put 300 to 400 homeless people, some of them crack addicts, back on the streets at night.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets