Don't Park It

Last Wednesday, while Phoenix City Council members considered an ordinance that would allow police to evict transients from city parks, Kurt Brewer was relaxing at home. While lawmakers debated whether people with no fixed address should be allowed to hang out in the park, Brewer kicked off his shoes and opened his newspaper, half expecting to find another editorial about what council members refer to as "day campers," but what most of the rest of us think of as the homeless. The people Brewer calls "street bums."

Kurt Brewer is a street bum. He splits his time between his two homes: a deep, cool crevice in a boulder at South Mountain Park, and in the warm sunshine of downtown's Margaret T. Hance Park. Brewer likes Hance Park because he's a big reader, and Burton Barr Central Library is just across the street. The Coronado Hotel, where he can grab a quick shower for three bucks, is right around the corner. He's lived in worse places, most recently a cave in Flagstaff. But last Christmas Eve, Brewer, a native of Washington state and former whitewater rafting guide, relocated to Phoenix. He says he's "from all over," but he's lived in Phoenix off and on for years now. The weather's nice and, until the city council started proposing ordinances that would chase the homeless from downtown parks, Phoenix was most hospitable to people with no fixed address.

Not for much longer. While Kurt Brewer and I sat in the sun, talking about all the places he's lived and where he went to college, the Phoenix City Council passed that proposed ordinance, amending a city code relating to camping in parks and allowing police and park rangers to evict "day campers" from all Phoenix parks. One of us was a man enjoying the sunshine in a park named after a former Phoenix mayor; the other was suddenly just some guy who had no right to be there.

New Times: Do you know about this ordinance that will ban the homeless from sleeping in parks during the day?

Kurt Brewer: Yeah. I read the paper every day; I know what they're trying to do. There was an editorial in the [Arizona] Republic on Friday saying the homeless people have got to go. In a sense, I can understand where they're coming from, because a lot of people that sleep in this park in the daytime have got big black bags of all their old dirty clothing and they've got blankets spread out everywhere. I can understand how some people might be offended by the sight of that.

NT: What's offensive about a couple of blankets?

Brewer: Local residents don't like the idea of homeless people living in their parks. Like the Republic editorial board said the other day, they don't want scruffy strangers panhandling their children. Trust me, I've spent enough time in this park to know that that never happens.

NT: Their park? I thought this was everyone's park.

Brewer: I guess they feel that since they pay taxes and own property in this neighborhood, it belongs to them more than it does to homeless people. There is a real problem with homeless people hanging around here. There are a lot of unsavory characters who smell so bad that just their presence is offensive to ordinary people. There are drug deals that go on here; there are people who sit in the park and drink beer all the time and don't even try to conceal what they're doing.

NT: And then there's you. Why should you be made to suffer because others are misbehaving?

Brewer: I've asked myself that a few times since I heard they're trying to pass a law against people like us. I will freely admit to being a homeless street bum. I don't have an address, I don't have a job, I camp in South Mountain Park, miles from here, in a crack in a rock up there in the mountain. I stash my gear up there and ride the bus back and forth to here every day.

NT: Because right now you're allowed to be here during the day. What if all that changes?

Brewer: I don't think they'll be able to bother me with their new ordinance, because as you can see I don't have bedding and I don't have bags of crap spread out. I could pass for somebody who's not a homeless person. That's my whole approach: The secret to being a homeless street bum is not to look like a homeless street bum.

NT: I wasn't sure you were homeless when I first saw you here. You're just some guy reading his newspaper in the sun.

Brewer: I was propped up reading the Sunday paper the other day, and a park ranger came and said, "Why don't you go sit at a picnic table to read your paper?" Like the fact that I'm sitting on the grass reading the paper is going to offend people's sensitivities, whereas if I'm sitting at a picnic table, that's not going to bother anyone. I wanted to tell him to go get fucked, but I don't want to go to jail. Those park rangers are just like city police; they can run you in.

NT: What is it about parks and homeless people, anyway?

Brewer: Everything else is private property. Even if you hang out in an alleyway, neighbors call the cops and they can run you in for loitering. A lot of these people sleep during the daytime because there's no safe place for them to sleep at night. A lot of them have mental illnesses, they're antisocial, they don't want to go to a shelter, they have drug and alcohol habits that don't allow them to participate in the shelter experience, as they say.

NT: You choose not to participate in the shelter experience yourself.

Brewer: Yeah. Last winter I was kicked out of two different shelters. I'm kind of proud of that. It would be nice if there were more cheap flophouse hotels, but the health department shuts them all down. [At the shelters] they all sleep in one room the size of a basketball court. I can't sleep in a room that large with that many people. They burp, they fart, they snore, they talk in their sleep, their feet stink. It's not doable.

NT: So the shelters aren't always a solution to the problem.

Brewer: You're not a human being to them, you're just a number that they use to get their funding. They don't care about people.

NT: Why do you think the city council cares where you sleep?

Brewer: They have to answer to the citizens, the voters and taxpayers. Homeless people don't vote or pay taxes, so we don't count as far as they're concerned.

NT: Does it seem that the city council should be maybe looking out for your welfare, instead of chasing you away?

Brewer: That's a nice thought. But there are some homeless people that nothing can be done for. They're just too crazy or too antisocial or too hopped up on alcohol or drugs to participate in any type of program to aid homeless people.

NT: Where will you go if this thing passes and they run you off?

Brewer: I'll go look for some patch of public ground where they're not gonna find me. I spent most of the summer sleeping in the bushes over by the freeway. There's always a nice breeze there, and you can wear earplugs so the traffic noise doesn't bother you.

NT: There are no day-sleeper ordinances in Avondale. You could move there.

Brewer: Nah. I'm a downtown kind of guy. They have all the services for homeless people down here. I just ate lunch at St. Vincent de Paul about an hour ago. You can get two free meals a day in this neighborhood.

NT: It can't be safe, sleeping in the park.

Brewer: Well, I'm a convicted felon, so I can't carry weapons. I don't have any troubles with anybody; I guess I look scary enough that most people don't bother me.

NT: So you're okay out here.

Brewer: Yeah. When they're not talking about ordinances to run everyone out of the park, they make it easy to be a homeless street bum here in central Phoenix. You can get almost all of your meals for free, and just about everything you want from the churches and other agencies. Which is fine with me. I don't like paying bills. I like spending my money on food and drink and bus tickets.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela