Crusty Crackdown

The City of Tempe is about to serve notice on the "crusties," or homeless youths, who flock to Mill Avenue for the winter: "Watch your butts. Literally."

The Tempe City Council, in conjunction with the business district's management company, Downtown Tempe Community Inc., is preparing to pass a municipal "sidewalk squatting" ordinance. The new law will make it illegal to sit or lay down on sidewalks in downtown Tempe.

Mill Avenue has become a crusties hotbed during colder months for several reasons: temperate climate; cheap, plentiful drugs; proximity to freight-train lines; displacement from crackdowns in traditional winter haunts like the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California; Tempe's relatively tolerant local government; and some of the best "spanging" in the country.

Spanging--a compression of "spare" and "change"--is crusty slang for begging.

"It's sweet here," says Lobo, 19, a self-described "traveler" who arrived on Mill last week with a bedroll, a backpack, three friends and a dog.

The first small bands of travelers began to show up in downtown Tempe in early October, right on schedule. Estimating their numbers is tricky, as many travelers are nocturnal, preferring to sleep during the day, when they're less likely to be rousted, and roam the pavement at night.

This season, as in the past, though, a favorite crusty hangout is the planter around the Centerpoint Plaza sign that marks the terrace outside Coffee Plantation. Recently, at least four separate bands of three to seven members each, all in Tempe for the first time and hailing from points shotgunned across the U.S., have come together there to swap stories and information--where to get a free shower, where to score heroin (not all crusties use hard drugs, but an informal survey suggests at least half are), where to sleep and be safe from cops and urban predators.

Obtaining food and spending money are minor hassles, comparatively.
"It's no problem to live off the excess of the squares [on Mill]," says Lobo, "because there's, like, six blocks, both sides, of nothing but places to eat, places to get fucked up and places to buy shit."

Which means lots of yuppies and college students, often buzzed, walking up and down Mill with change in their pockets and half-eaten meals in Styrofoam take-home boxes.

Lobo--sporting black dreadlocks and a Refuse & Resist tee shirt that reads: "I used to be a White American, but I gave it up in the interest of humanity"--says he became a traveler "because I want nothing to do with the mind-numbing, 9 to 5, human treadmill of the American socioeconomic system of individual oppression."

He first heard of the Mill Avenue promised land from other travelers last winter, which he spent shivering in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. So far, downtown Tempe has more than lived up to Lobo's expectations.

"It's all good. The weather's nice, the people are nice and the spanging's nice."

But spanging typically means sitting--hence the proposed "sidewalk squatting" ordinance.

"This problem with what I term 'disconnected youth' really began about three years ago, and basically caught us off guard," says Rod Keeling, director of Downtown Tempe Community Inc.

"We didn't know what the hell to do, but now we're learning, and beginning to implement and use the tools that have worked for other communities with similar public-disorder problems."

Tempe's proposed sidewalk law follows "aggressive panhandling" and "urban camping" ordinances passed last summer. Keeling brought the idea for a new law before the Tempe City Council in August. The council directed Tempe's city attorney to draft an ordinance closely modeled after a sidewalk law Seattle passed in 1994, which has withstood several court challenges.

The Tempe ordinance has yet to be scheduled for a full vote of the council. Dennis Cahill, chairman of the council's public health and safety committee, says he is "cautiously supportive" of the ordinance. He thinks it will come to a vote by December.

"I'm real concerned we address this issue for what it really is--a pedestrian traffic problem, plain and simple," says Cahill. "If this was just an ordinance to get certain undesirables out of downtown Tempe, that wouldn't fly with me. But I almost tripped over one of those kids one day, so I think it's a legitimate concern."

"Downtown Tempe is a public place," says Keeling. "If you were to go to another public place, such as a movie theater, or a mall, or Gammage Auditorium, and you saw dozens of people sitting and laying around, your reaction would probably be, 'Who's in charge here? Who's tolerating this on behalf of the citizens?'

"Well, the crux of any discussion of this sidewalk ordinance is this: Is our community willing to tolerate that kind of behavior in our downtown area? And I think the answer has become a firm 'No.'"

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty challenged Seattle's sidewalk-squatting ordinance as far as the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled two to one to uphold the law as constitutional.

"The first step to wisdom is calling a thing by its right name," Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the majority opinion. "Whoever named 'parkways' and 'driveways' never got to step two. Whoever named 'sidewalks' did."

In other words, sidewalks are for walking, dummy. End of free-speech challenge.

The Ninth Circuit's lone dissenter, Judge Harry Pergerson, wrote: "Seattle seeks economic preservation by ridding itself of social undesirables--homeless or otherwise--who sit or lie on the sidewalks, and this is done to protect the sensibilities of shoppers.

"Although aesthetics may be a legitimate concern of lawmakers when debating whether to allow signs on utility poles, such a concern is questionable when evaluating restrictions that directly impede individual expressive conduct."

"We're confident we're on solid constitutional ground," says Keeling.
Like Tempe's aggressive-panhandling and urban-camping ordinances, Keeling says, the sidewalk-squatting ban will likely produce few arrests.

"It's more of a tool for the police. It will empower a cop to come up and say, 'You can't sit on the sidewalk, and I can cite you if you don't move along.'"

The pending sidewalk ban aside, street life on Mill has already gotten rougher for this year's crop of crusties: The public bathrooms behind the Crocodile Cafe have been removed; so has the ramada (four benches under a shade structure) across from Long Wong's, which used to be a choice spot to crash for a couple of hours.

Also, the Pink House squat, an abandoned neighborhood Mexican restaurant on the northwest corner of Farmer and University, which became a crash pad for dozens of travelers last season, was demolished over the summer, and is now the construction site of a new Boston Market franchise.

Lobo says he'd been told to look for the pink house near Mill, but didn't see one, so he and his friends have been sleeping in pipes along the riverbank in a Rio Salado Project construction site.

"I don't like to sit on the sidewalk, anyway," Lobo says of the proposed new law. "I like the benches better. More comfortable."

Still, he says, if Tempe becomes inhospitable, he already has an alternate winter locale in mind.

"I've been hearing a lot from the Rainbow Family kids about this place called Sedona."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address:


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