Longform

Street Without Hope

Through binoculars at night, the corner of Ninth Avenue and Madison Street is a murky scene of people milling in the dark. Yet the few lights in the area radiate just enough to see that the street's after-hours crowd of about 100 homeless men and women is beginning to stir.

Small bunches of people are moving in and out of a shadowy line of stumpy palm trees outside St. Vincent de Paul on the north side of the street. More are gathering on the south, in front of the long gray building housing the "homeless post office" and labor pool. One man zips down the curb, arms flailing. But the rest huddle in groups of two and three. Then, almost as if on command, they jockey into two larger clusters that begin to migrate up the block, feet shuffling, arms and heads jittering, reaching and bobbing in silhouette like ants converging on a chunk of food.

It's about 9 p.m. on a Saturday in early April, and the crack cocaine has just arrived.

It isn't always easy to tell who's who on Madison Street during the day. But this drug scrummage reveals a daunting truth about one segment of the homeless who live on and around these beleaguered five or six blocks west of Seventh Avenue south of Jefferson, at the east end of Capitol Mall.

The men and women here tonight aren't waiting to get a free lunch at Vinnies, or see the doctors at the county health clinic for the homeless down the street. They aren't about to pick up their mail, or check in for the night at the nearby Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) 400-bed shelter.

They've come to Madison to do one thing, and do it as often as they can: smoke crack. And they've abandoned just about every remnant of normal life to do it.

From a distance, the problems on Madison Street have been easy to pin simply on homelessness. But up close, it's clear that drugs are the real reason this area continues to be Phoenix's poster scene of urban rot.

Drugs, especially crack cocaine, have been the agent of the squalor and filth that clings to and surrounds the wasted lives here. Drugs give people a reason--some would say excuse--to sit among heaps of refuse and rotted food on sidewalks glistening with phlegm. Or to call out, "Rock, man?" to every new passerby. Or to rob, hustle and prostitute for a little cash at the margins of downtown alleys. Or to pile 20 at a time into the bathrooms behind CASS, to smoke crack out of sight.

It's evident that the presence of crack addicts on these streets--a short walk from state, county and city offices--continues to eat away at the heart of downtown Phoenix. The blocks around Madison Street are far more than a blot on the clean image that city and downtown business leaders have been working to build for the urban core.

To local businesses that live with the problems that drugs bring--and to many of the homeless who aren't addicts but depend on the area's social services--Madison Street and its environs host a concentration of predators and victims, a persistent gauntlet of hustlers and users, many of whom are both.

Part of the problem, many advocates for the homeless say, is that the simplistic demonization of drugs over the past decade has discouraged people from finding out who the homeless addicts are and how they got that way. Are they there by choice? Or is there something more to know about their circumstances?

Many advocates believe that those questions will need to be answered before there's any new commercial development to the west half of downtown or consolidation of downtown's existing patchwork of homeless services into a single "homeless campus."

"I don't think there's any question that we're going to have a serious conflict there unless we figure out how to deal with the substance abuse and drugs," says Martin Shultz, who heads the Capitol Mall Committee of the Phoenix Community Alliance, the private group of downtown corporate and business leaders that has been pushing for development in the area. "But I'm afraid to say--and I sure don't want this to happen--but I'll predict it's going to take a crisis before we get some real attention for this."

Government researchers estimate that a minimum of 2,600 homeless drug addicts in Maricopa County can't get treatment because of the lack of programs. There are at least another 300 addicts who also can't get treatment and suffer from mental illness as well. Many officials believe the numbers are substantially higher.

Those numbers aren't likely to decline anytime soon. Homeless service providers point out that despite recent promising efforts to divert some drug offenders into treatment programs, rather than incarcerate them, jails and prisons are still releasing inmates with drug problems to downtown streets.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow