The homeless sit in groups on the sidewalks of downtown Tempe, faithful dogs panting by their sides, sometimes chatting among themselves, sometimes hailing passersby to ask for cash, water, or cigarettes — and it drives merchants crazy.
Angelica Seliga, a manager at the BMO Harris Bank on Mill Avenue, used to call the Tempe Police Department to “get them removed.” But, last year, the City Council dropped an ordinance that banned sitting on the sidewalk, and, she says, the loitering has been getting “progressively worse.”
Now, she and other downtown merchants are lobbying to have the ban reinstated.
Business owners complain that the homeless, with their carts of belongings and bags of “trash,” block access to stores and create an “uninviting atmosphere” for guests.
“It's even to the point where my staff does not want to take the trash out at night after we close because they feel unsafe with all of them sitting around everywhere,” Zach Cobian, owner of Rita’s Ice, wrote in an e-mail to the City Council.
Julian Wright, president of the Fork & Daggar Restaurant Group, told the council it wasn’t fair that the homeless could “negatively affect our businesses and our employees’ ability to make money.”
“We already pay taxes to provide these folks with services,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Several council members seemed open to reinstating the ordinance at a recent meeting.
“The merchants on Mill Avenue are our stakeholders,” Councilwoman Robin Arredondo-Savage said. “If they are successful, that makes Tempe successful.”
But Councilwoman Lauren Kuby said she found business owners’ complaints “pretty insensitive and callous,” arguing that the homeless are city stakeholders, too.
“We can’t just push them off the street. They have nowhere to go,” she said. “We have a larger problem here. It’s called lack of affordable housing.”
She pushed her colleagues to, instead, consider finding ways to address the shortage of beds in emergency shelters and beef up programs that tackle the underlying causes of homelessness, such as access to mental healthcare and substance-abuse treatment.
Mayor Mark Mitchell chided her for getting “off topic.”
Banning sidewalk sitting, he and Vice Mayor Corey Woods argued, is more about “targeting behavior” than targeting the transient population.
“My concern is that we are treating people the same,” Woods said. “If you are homeless lying on the sidewalk, we should move you in the same way as if you are intoxicated lying on the sidewalk. If I just happen to be obstructing the sidewalk, I should be moved, too.”
Advocates for the poor, however, said an ordinance banning the homeless is “obviously discriminatory” and maybe even unconstitutional.
“If you have a home or you can afford to go to a restaurant, you have options if you need to sit down,” said Amy McMullen, co-founder of the Maricopa Alliance for Shelter and Housing. “If you are living on the street, you don’t have the luxury of having other places to sit down.”
Tempe, which already has ordinances banning aggressive panhandling and “urban camping,” is one of a growing number of cities across the country that has outlawed behaviors typically associated with homelessness. In a recent study of 187 cities, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found 53 percent prohibit sitting or lying down in certain public places, which represents a 43 percent increase since 2011. Laws banning loitering and loafing have increased by 35 percent. Bans on sleeping in vehicles have jumped 119 percent.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently weighed in on the issue, declaring that a Boise law banning sleeping in public was unconstitutional because the city did not provide adequate shelter space.
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“Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity,” the department wrote in a statement of interest. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
Chasing the homeless from downtown Tempe won’t change the fact that services for the homeless in Maricopa County are woefully inadequate, McMullen said.
“You’re not going to force people not to be homeless by harassing them,” she said. “It may make your sidewalks look nicer. But if we have a lot of people who need to sit on the sidewalk, maybe we should ask why they have to sit on the sidewalk.”