Culture News

Where Did All the Homeless Go During Final Four Week? We Asked Them

Brian Noeo, 58, was one of many homeless people who was moved out of Margaret T. Hance Park during the Final Four weekend
Brian Noeo, 58, was one of many homeless people who was moved out of Margaret T. Hance Park during the Final Four weekend Sean Holstege

Brian Noeo, 58, was one of many homeless people who was moved out of Margaret T. Hance Park during the Final Four weekend
Sean Holstege
Consider the case of the missing homeless.

Invisible in the crowds that swarmed downtown for last weekend’s Final Four events were the street people of Phoenix. They weren’t in Margaret T. Hance Park. Nor Central Station. Nor any of their typical haunts.

They didn’t show up in unusual numbers at the Central Arizona Shelter Services nor at the overflow shelter at St. Vincent de Paul.

So where were they?

“Where did we go? Wherever we could,” said Brian Noeo, who is 58 and said he’s been on the streets on and off for seven years.

While the community celebrated a big sporting event, life got inconvenient for a small knot of people who spend most of their days in Hance Park.

“They walled it off so we had to walk all the way around (to go to a nearby church for assistance). They did that for us,” Noeo said.

Phoenix’s human services coordinator Riann Balch did not immediately return a call about the city’s efforts.

The park was the venue for a free concert, and authorities strictly enforced a no-backpack policy at the security entrances. People were only allowed in with clear bags. That rules out a lot of people among Noeo’s group of friends. The perimeter was set up to secure access to the concerts.

Over at CASS, development director J. David Smith said he had heard that people “had been swept from the park” and other public places in anticipation of the events.

It wouldn’t be unusual. Similar stories surfaced in London during the Olympics and are common stories at soccer World Cup tournaments.

“I have heard the city has been doing outreach to relocate people from the park,” Smith said. “The goal is to make Hance Park more user-friendly and approachable.”

But the folks who spend more time in the park than anyone are nonplussed by the city’s efforts to breathe new life into the area. They point to a string of new high-rise condos nearby.
click to enlarge
A group of homeless people gathers in Margaret Hance Park Friday.
Sean Holstege

“This is a facade. These apartments around here are all high-dollar. We live real. We make them look bad. It makes their world look bad during an event when they want to make money,” said 48-year-old Jo Jo, who stays in Hance Park during the days and has been on the streets eight years.

She didn’t want to give her last name because she feared people on the street would steal it.

But she, and others in a small group near Burton Barr Central Library, said they were driven off by police, and that’s nothing new.

Noeo recounted a confrontation a week earlier in which police moved homeless people seven times in one day along a three-block stretch of Roosevelt Street.

“We weren’t allowed to sit in the shade under the bridge. I talked to the park boss and he said it was okay, as long as we picked up our mess, like we always do,” Noeo said.

For his group, the NCAA tournament was just another, perhaps more glaring, example of the disparities and hypocrisies they see every day.

“I think we are disrespected, but in a sideways way. When people talk to us, they treat us differently,” Jo Jo said. “People walking from those expensive apartments, they don’t say a word to them.”

“We’re stereotyped too much and that’s not right,” she added. “It’s the most humbling experience in the world to go in the median and beg. Can you imagine doing that? That’s not easy. Living on the street is not easy.”

Being invisible is nothing new to her. Even worse is, as one man in Hance Park put it Friday:

“We were in the way.”

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege