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Guest opinion

Kozachik: Review city laws before writing new homeless rules

Between the city and county, the region invests in the range of $20 million into homeless and rehousing support services. Those are largely pass-through funds from HUD and other federal agencies. The bulk of the services offered with that money come with strings attached — rules about qualifications and triaging access. Our support network does a very good job with the resources it has. It's not enough, and it never will be.

From the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness' "Point in Time" count data, our population of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless has decreased compared to last year. But we're still seeing all ages, all races, youth both with and without a parent, veterans, people with mental illnesses, and pretty much any subgroup description you might conger up in your mind. The issue is significant in our community.

We got ourselves into legal trouble with what was formerly known as our "3 B" policy. That was allowing only a bedroll, backpack, and beverage in public rights-of-way. We didn't apply the policy consistently and were told the arbitrary application was unacceptable. I'm proposing a change in policy to a "3 C" approach: clarity, consistency and compassion.

Last Thursday, I advised the city attorney, mayor, and city manager that I will be pulling my July 7 homeless item from the agenda. The reason is that since I submitted the memo asking for the item, I've run across four ordinances and/or protocols related to homelessness. After having read through them, along with several others that have been brought to my attention, I've concluded that instead of adding yet another ordinance to our tool kit, what we need to do is clarify what's already on the books, change language in those existing ordinances so that it's consistent from one to the next, and transmit a clear message to the Tucson Police Department and the public that we're enforcing.

As written, the current set of ordinances is internally inconsistent. As a result, it's not at all clear that a cohesive set of guidelines has ever been transmitted to the police or, in fairness, to the general public. We have ordinances that govern sitting and lying down on the sidewalk in Downtown, 4th Avenue, and Main Gate commercial areas. We have no-camping ordinances related to parks. TPD has specific protocols they are supposed to be using when they confront an apparent homeless person on the street. There are ordinances we have on the books related to library grounds. There are nuisance laws, aggressive panhandling laws, rules related to when, where, and under what circumstances you can distribute food, and rules pertaining to blocking streets, alleys, and sidewalks. Yet the terms used in many of these ordinances are not consistently defined, and the times of day when they're enforceable differ between documents.

I saw no reason to lump yet another ordinance on top of that which exists. First, clean up what's on the books, give TPD and the general public a clear set of guidelines to follow in their implementation, and treat people with the compassion that everybody deserves.

I've asked staff to sit down in a room, spread all of what already exists out on a table, and reconcile the pieces in the most comprehensive manner possible. Identify gaps in what we have and propose changes to fill them. Include in the protocols a mandate that the police make an effort to get people into the services they need at our first point of contact. The intent is not to "criminalize homelessness." It's to get treatment for people who need it and to allow for the free flow of pedestrian traffic and commerce. We can do that without a new law.

The report will be done in time for our Aug. 5 study session. It might be a series of small changes to each of the existing ordinances so there's a consistent message across them all, or it might be one overarching new ordinance that supersedes what exists now. I told staff that the form doesn't matter. What does matter is that our rules respect the need for safety, hygiene, and the right of the public to freely conduct their business in public rights-of-way.

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I also included this comment in the note I sent to staff: I continue to believe and will advocate for low-demand shelter sites to be identified and at least partially funded by the city. During a meeting hosted by Bishop Gerald Kicanis last week, I also made a similar statement to multiple business leaders who were in attendance. The city and county put about $20 million combined into treatment and housing for homeless people, but the group we're seeing in the Downtown core largely don't fit into one of the models we're offering through HUD and other funding sources. If we don't advance the idea of low-demand shelter opportunities, we will miss a significant and particularly needy component of the homeless people we're trying to help.

We need to have a clear set of guidelines. We need the involvement of the business community to assist with the funding of low-demand options. We need the involvement of the faith community in offering up some of their facilities for low-demand shelter options on temporary and reoccurring bases. The issue of touching the lives of the homeless is indeed a community effort. On Aug. 5, I hope to see the clear set of guidelines that will help us get there. In between now and then, I hope to hear from businesses and faith-based groups sowe have a robust set of resources to bring to bear on this issue.

We will not solve homelessness, but we can do better than we are now — not only the city government, but the wider community as well.

Steve Kozachik represents Ward 6 on the Tucson City Council. Contact him at at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or (520) 791-4601.

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