Phoenix Means Well

Phoenix has scored another national ranking, and The Bird doesn't mean Mr. Blackwell's "Best Dressed" list, either. According to a list compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Phoenix is number 17 among the 20 "meanest" cities in the nation for those with no place to live. (Sarasota, Florida, is the number one meanest place. And Phoenicians might take some small comfort in knowing that our sister Arizona city, Flagstaff, is also on the list, way up at number 10.)

Our latest milestone has this foul fowl wondering: How can a city that's built a massive, $24 million "campus" devoted to helping homeless people be deemed "mean" to that very population?

Apparently because we won't let them beg. Or sleep in parks. At least that's what Michael Stoops, acting director for the NCH and one of the authors of the list, told The Bird.

"Phoenix criminalizes the homeless," Stoops squawked. "They've made it illegal to beg on street corners. And you don't shelter all your homeless. If last summer there had been more air-conditioned shelters available, those dozen homeless wouldn't have died from heat exposure."

So that's what this is all about. Our inhumanly hot summers are to blame for what Stoops calls our "very real meanness" to our transient population. And our inability to provide shelter to every single homeless person, whether he or she wants it or not, also makes us "mean."

"Also, you've passed one of the most backward ordinances I've seen in 30 years of work with the homeless," Stoops said, referring to last year's ruling that banned camping in all Phoenix parks. "I always thought parks were for everyone, including the homeless," Stoops sniffed. "Phoenix promotes itself as one of the best in the country in terms of helping homeless people. I find that laughable."

What The Bird finds laughable is Stoops' solution to reversing our "mean" status. Apparently, constructing the 14-acre Central Arizona Shelter Services campus, which houses and feeds the homeless and provides outreach services dedicated to getting them off the streets once and for all, isn't enough. ("The CASS campus had no bearing on our report," Stoops confessed.) What Stoops wants us to do is build a coalition of nice people who will sit around waiting, for example, for some homeless guy to start pissing on the street, then run out and ask him kindly not to.

"If Joe the homeless guy unzips and whips it out and is scaring people," Stoops tweeted, "it would be better, rather than calling the cops, to have someone go out and say to him, 'Joe, you can't do this.'"

The Bird can't deny that asking a bum to keep his dick in his pants isn't a bad idea. But Mark Holleran, director of Madison Street's Central Arizona Shelter Services, thinks there are more effective ways to help the homeless. "Teaching people how to find work, giving them a head-start while they do that, giving them a place to stay -- these are helpful things," Holleran rattled off. "If the people who put together this 'mean' list had bothered to talk to me, they'd know we're making a big difference for a lot of people."

Not big enough, crowed Stoops: "Your city needs a team of advocates checking up on the homeless, and developing relationships with them. You need to stop calling the cops every time some guy who needs a bath asks you for a quarter."

Anything else is just plain mean.

Public Hearing Loss

Those Phoenix meanies who're being so inhospitable to poor defenseless hobos ought to take a cue from the Tempe City Council, which last month approved an ordinance to restrict businesses that attract an undesirable element. (If they never show up, you don't have to be nice to them, see?!) The restrictions will require that certain new businesses -- plasma centers, check-cashing joints, hookah bars, rent-to-own operations and various types of employment agencies -- submit to a public-hearing process before they can set up shop.

In plain English, that means that Tempe can now say "no" to any business that draws what The Bird's grandma used to call "the wrong crowd."

In not-so-plain English (because of course city managers don't run around admitting that they'd rather not have transients wandering their streets), Steve Venker, the City of Tempe's planning and zoning manager, tried to explain to The Bird why this ordinance ever happened without actually coming right out and saying, "We're trying not to appeal to too many lowlifes."

The ordinance was passed, Venker said, in an effort to "protect the community from loitering and heavy traffic" and because "[these businesses] create spillover effects in nearby residential neighborhoods."

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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