Pima County to build shelter for homeless, responding to biz concerns about 'aggressive' panhandlers, drug use
Tucson business owners complain about theft, violence & public sex by unsheltered people; project aimed at 'relief' for local proprietors
Pima County will try to help Tucson business owners who are complaining about homeless people stealing, destroying their stores, acting violently and committing other crimes by converting vacant property near Flowing Wells into a temporary shelter that will also offer in-house social services.
At their meeting last Tuesday, the Pima County Board of Supervisors heard several stories from Tucson business owners about homeless people using drugs, “aggressive panhandling,” camping and having sex on their properties. The supervisors acknowledged that businesses “need some relief,” but a temporary shelter wouldn’t solve the bigger problem of homelessness in Tucson.
County Board Chair Sharon Bronson put the issue on the agenda for discussion, and county staff is already looking at multiple sites for the shelter. County Administrator Jan Lesher said she will come back to the board to ask for funding for the shelter as well as to finalize a job opening for someone to coordinate Pima County and Tucson’s efforts.
A vacant county property at 1010 West Miracle Mile — a bowling alley that was purchased and torn down — “would be the best location” for placing the shelter, according to a Oct. 14 county memo by Lesher. The location, which includes a main building, parking lot and smaller building, is near the northwest intersection with Fairview Avenue on Tucson’s Northwest Side. The county plans to construct a service center on the property next year.
The shelter is meant to be a “transitional center” and offer county housing, behavioral health and substance abuse services as well as temporary shelter, according to the memo.
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, whose district is mostly Tucson, said at the meeting that she has doubts about the shelter, saying “we’re trying to create a solution to a bigger problem, and the biggest problem is we just don’t have housing.” She was especially wary about forcing people to stay in the shelter.
“How do we compel people to stay in this shelter?” Grijalva said. “Are we going to arrest people and detain them because they’re homeless? Because there’s no way to compel somebody to participate in this program.”
Grijalva agreed “there needs to be some action” but advocated for more long-term solutions, such as “investing more in workforce development and education.”
Bronson responded saying “I don’t think there’s an immediate solution, but there is an ability to at least give the neighborhoods and the businesses some relief.”
“You’re right, it’s a long-term problem, how do we address it?” Bronson said to Grijalva. “The whole issue of homelessness, there’s so many different groups, but this is the group that is harming businesses and neighborhoods, and I don’t know what the overall solution is.”
Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, agreed that “people are creating havoc on our businesses and our community, and we need action and we need action now.”
So far this year, the Tucson Police Department has reported 5,716 incidents of shoplifting, according to TPD's online data dashboard. That's a decrease from the 6,373 shoplifting incidents up to the same point last year.
Overall, the number of reported crimes in Tucson is down, with close to 20,000 incidents reported to TPD so far this year and close to 21,000 reported incidents last year-to-date. However, buglary, motor vehicle theft, arson and aggravated assault are all up from their 2021 year-to-date numbers.
How do you explain that to a 5-year-old?
Flowing Wells School Board member Kevin Daily spoke during the meeting’s public comment period about “the unprecedented levels of crime tearing apart our community and the rampant human tragedy.”
He listed off complaints that he’s heard from business owners about homeless people, such as “aggressive panhandling, trespassers using drugs at the doorsteps of businesses, leaving urine and feces that discourage customers from patronizing our local businesses.”
“Citizens are having their cars broken into, items stolen off doorsteps and homes burgled,” Daily said. “Our city and county employees and employers and citizens are feeling more unsafe than ever.”
Daily is the founder and a current member of the Flowing Wells Neighborhood Association and Community Coalition. He told the county board that nine months ago he co founded a group called the “Tucson crime-free coalition of businesses and neighborhoods” and that it had 860 members in nine weeks.
Josh Jacobsen, the vice president of food processor Arizona Sunland Foods and an owner of two Lucky Wishbone locations, also told the supervisors about “people living a lawless lifestyle on our streets.”
“On a regular basis, our staff and I are cleaning drug paraphernalia in our properties, we’ve got people that are coming in, using drugs in our bathrooms, our locations that are closest to bus stops are the most affected,” he said. “We’ve often had to pry open to doors to find people nodded off or force them to leave because they continue to use illegal substances.”
Jacobsen said his staff is also “regularly dealing with vandalism, break-ins, theft of merchandise as well as our utilities.” People “urban camp on our properties at night, that includes having fires on our patios at night and defecating on our sidewalks.”
He’s spent “tens of thousands of dollars in repairs and security upgrades,” Jacobsen told the county board. “It’s becoming one of our largest expenses.” Daily also mentioned that local businesses “are spending tens of thousands of dollars on security and fencing.”
“They are experiencing losses due to unchecked theft, shoplifting, broken windows, property damage and open sex in a family dentist parking lot — how do you explain that to a 5-year-old?” Daily said to the county board. “Employers and employees are being assaulted. We see unchallenged, open drug use. Elected officials have been unwilling to address what is the number one issue in our county because it is hard.”
When asking people to leave, “many times they become very aggressive towards us or even our customers. I personally have been assaulted several times, and so has one of my managers.”
“When customers feel unsafe, it’s terrible for our business,” Jacobsen said. “Safety of my employees and my customers is my number one priority, and today, it’s my number one concern.”
Jacobsen is also a commissioner on the Pima County Small Business Commission, which is an advisory group for the county board, and a member of the policy committee for the Tucson Metro Chamber’s Restaurant Advisory Council.
“We have seen an increase in the incidents of illegal behavior perpetrated by a segment of the street-living homeless in our community,” Lesher wrote in the memo. “The purpose of this temporary shelter is to reduce the likelihood of unsheltered individuals engaging in illegal behavior — whether out of mental illness, drug abuse or other causes.”
The county spent $2.85 million in 2018 to buy the 1010 West Miracle Mile property as they were looking for a way to extend county services to the North Side and Flowing Wells. Construction will begin in April 2023 to turn almost 5-acre lot into the Northwest Service Center, which would house offices for the Pima County Health Department, Adult Probation, Juvenile Court and Community Services, Employment and Training. Construction is expected to cost about $4 million.
County staff is still considering other locations such as a more spacious building on the northeast section of Mission Road and Silverlake Road that used to be a Sheriff’s minimum security jail. Spots in Downtown, next to Kino Complex and on Crushing Street and Interstate 10 Frontage Road are also being considered.
The Miracle Mile location, however, is close “to bus lines, the Tucson Police Department and the La Frontera housing services,” according to the memo. The TPD Westside Police Service Center would be about a block away from the Northwest Service Center.
A Tucson problem?
Tucson officials have already brought up the concerns of homelessness and crime. At their Sept. 27 study session, the City Council directed City Manager Mike Ortega to create a paid position for a person that will work with Pima County on possible solutions, but they haven’t approved funding for the position.
At the county board meeting, Lesher said that she has “been working closely with Mr. Ortega about the development” of the position and its job description, saying that the county has the money to fund and staff it. The individual would report to both jurisdictions, she said last Tuesday.
“What we’re hearing from the community and the groups that are working on this issue is that one of the challenges is finding a way to navigate through the city and the county,” she said. “How to identify problems, how to receive assistance, et cetera.”
The county will be able to establish the position “pretty soon,” Lesher said. It will be “an important first step in making sure we do have collaboration,” she said.
The city has also purchased hotels and dedicated some of their housing staff to focus on the homelessness and crime issue, Lesher said. City staff threw around a few other ideas, including “mobiliz(ing) the nonprofit community,” purchasing a hotel and turning it into “permanent supportive housing” and updating city codes to move homeless people from certain spots such as traffic medians though codes “were being enforced and enforced appropriately” already.
However, Bronson said at the meeting that she spoke with Mayor Regina Romero on Monday but admitted “I don’t think we had a meeting of the minds as to what we’re going to do or what the prescribed remedy is, so it’s going to be an ongoing discussion.”
The county board chairwoman pointed out that “the majority of the problem, the majority of the challenge, and where we’re seeing these incidents are within the boundaries of the city of Tucson.”
“Pima County doesn’t seem to have that same problem, nor do the other jurisdictions,” Bronson said. “I don’t know what that says, but what we do know, what we heard very eloquently from our speakers, is that we have a problem, and that it’s an immediate problem.”
Lesher also stated at the meeting that the county isn’t “focusing on the overall issue of homelessness.” What the county wants to focus on is “that initial group that is causing problems to our area businesses and to our families and individuals,” Lesher said.
“How do we make sure we’re working with the city, with Tucson police, with the Sheriff’s Department to ensure those people are off the street,” Lesher said. “A step of that sometimes can be a safe location, other than the jail, for people to go.”
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.