Tucson City Council considers pilot program to quell homelessness

Fred Fisher said one way to stay sane when you are homeless is to accept the harsh reality.

Fisher came to Tucson via a two-year contracted position that required him to travel. He chose to stay in town, and when his savings ran out he wound up homeless. That was nine years ago come July.

He applied for public housing through the City of Tucson’s Housing and Community Development Department program, and was placed on a waiting list about three years ago.

The Tucson City Council discussed the Permitted Overnight Sleeping Pilot Program, on Wednesday, Feb. 22, an initiative that will provide temporary housing at designated safe spaces for people facing homelessness. The city unanimously voted to revisit a properly vetted proposal within 120 days.

In its current draft, the program will authorize 10 overnight sleeping areas throughout Tucson. Local ministries, non-profit organizations and businesses will be allowed to house up to four vehicles or micro-housing structures on their property.

Michele Ream, director at Community Supported Shelters Tucson, said part of Tucson’s homeless problem is the extensive wait for affordable housing, so providing temporary safe spaces can make all the difference.

Ream is working with a local architect to develop a prototype for the city’s proposal, which will be housed on her property. The model will be easy to assemble, and upon completion Ream plans on inviting Tucson’s Mayor and Council to stay overnight.

Homeless people simply don’t have a legal right to be anywhere, Ream explained. And the concept is to provide a temporary space for people facing homelessness. From there, they can apply for housing, local programs and stabilize in general, she said.

“The idea behind the hut is that it’s going to provide basic shelter … security, that you can lock your stuff when you leave during the day, and you can lock the door so no one’s going to come in and beat your head in when you’re sleeping,” she said. “And then just the stability that’s going to come from having a place that you’re allowed to be.”

The proposal recommends these sites be located within 1,200 feet of other rehabilitation centers or homeless shelters. The sites will also provide services such as restrooms and garbage collection, and participants will not be charged any fees.

Site rules may prohibit alcohol use or possession, designate a set time for participants to vacate the location and ask them to perform some type of community service, according to city documents.

Local leaders will also require that service providers notify their neighbors before allowing participants to utilize the sites. Furthermore, the city of Tucson will not provide any funding towards the project, and the city must be exempt from any type of legal recourse, according to the first draft of the proposal.

The local initiative is based on a few successful programs launched in Eugene, Oregon including: SquareOne Villages, formerly known as Opportunity Village Eugene, which is a 30-unit compact housing property for the homeless; and the Overnight Parking Program, which provides a legal camping space, garbage pickup and restrooms for people or families living in their cars.

‘Homeless by a Wall’ (Garry Knight / Creative Commons)

About 77 percent of Arizona’s homeless population live in either Pima or Maricopa counties, according to data collected by the Department of Economic Security in 2015. The report stated, the density of Pima County’s homeless population remains the highest in Arizona, and although the amount of homeless people has decreased it’s still larger than the national average. In FY 2014, about 1 in every 180 people were facing homelessness in Pima County, according to DES’s report on homelessness in Arizona in 2015.

Ream said the DES’s estimate is conservative at best.

Council Member Regina Romero, a Democrat representing Ward 1, said finding solutions to Tucson’s homeless problem is an ongoing discussion. The city’s collaborative efforts with faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations to combat homelessness is certainly moving forward, she said, and fine tuning this pilot project is worth the effort.

“And if Eugene, Oregon has piloted a program like this, I don’t see why the city of Tucson should not follow suit,” Romero said.

Council Member Richard Fimbres, a Democrat of Ward 5, said this would be a valuable addition to the city’s efforts.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was concerned about naming an arbitrary amount of sites before the city is approached by organizations that are interested in participating in the program. He also said providing security at the locations is a key talking point.

And a major player in this program needs to be the city’s planning and development staff, Rothschild said.

Council Member Karin Uhlich, a Democrat representing Ward 3, said this project is designed to alleviate the pressure for people living on the street, as well as help local homeowners who are forced to deal with the liabilities of homelessness.

“And the goal of this program is to help people to join back into the community,” she said. “I think if people are hosted by a known congregation, by a known entity and have a better, formalized structure — their chances will be much better at succeeding.”

Brianda Torres-Traylor, a council aide for Ward 3, said this initiative can act as an essential transitional program for people dealing with chronic homelessness.

Assuring the participants, sites and surrounding communities remain safe is of utmost importance, Torres-Traylor said. This pilot program could serve as a flexible, community-based response to providing housing for those in need, a model that Council Member Uhlich is interested in exploring, she added.

“This could be one way to address the fact that folks aren’t getting into traditional programs,” Torres-Traylor said.

Attending a city council meeting was a first for Fisher, and he hopes local leaders can draw a conclusion about the pilot program soon than later. As Fisher waits for affordable housing to become available, he lives in a shed on Ream’s property, a luxury he’s enjoyed for the last three years.

“And when I’m out looking for work, I don’t have a backpack with my life on my shoulder, I have clean clothes and I can put two words together — I hope,” he said, with a laugh.

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