One of the calls my staff deals with increasing frequency is the presence of homeless people. Unfortunately, with the economic shock of the last 18 months, our homeless population has increased significantly.
My staff has been doing their best to make sure that these calls get a response as soon as possible, but please keep in mind that the city, as well as the social service agencies that work with our homeless population, are stretched thin both in terms of personnel and resources.
There are a couple of important things to consider. One is that merely being homeless is not a crime. An individual spending an afternoon on a park bench or wandering up and down a certain sidewalk can’t be arrested for that. Camping out on public or private property, however, is trespassing. Just telling them to move on doesn’t solve any problems, however. That just means there will be a camp in another neighborhood and, most importantly, it still means that one of our fellow citizens is homeless.
For the last few years, the city has been using what we call “Homeless Protocol.” This is a multi-department effort to deal with issues of homeless people camping on public properties. This involves primarily the Tucson Police Department, Department of Environmental and General Services, Department of Housing and Community Development as well as other city agencies as well as other community partners like Old Pueblo Community Services. The aim is to make contact with homeless individuals, get them into services and get the area they are camping in cleaned up.
Although we have had some success with Homeless Protocol, there are, according to one estimate, 2000 homeless people in our community. Many of the departments and agencies involved don’t have the funding to help everyone who needs help.
Let’s talk first about getting people into housing. There are certain populations that are less complex to find housing for. In recent years, we made it a priority to end homelessness among our city’s veterans, and we now have dedicated housing units for that. Beyond that, a single individual without any major mental or substance abuse issues can be housed rather easily. Housing options for people in these situations don’t require any special staff or extra accommodation.
What happens, though, to the person with a chronic mental illness? Or, someone that has addiction issues? Or, that is homeless with a spouse? Or even someone with a pet? With every new complication, housing options, or even overnight shelters, become increasingly scarce.
Combine that with the lack of affordable housing options in general and the lack of funds for governments like ours to address that need, and you can see a little bit of why we are in this situation.
Recently, Police Chief Chris Magnus has stopped having patrol respond to calls regarding the homeless unless there are crimes other than trespassing on city property involved. Again, remember that merely being homeless and somewhere is not a crime. The police are still responding, it’s just that all the initial contacts are now going to be handled by the Homeless Outreach Team.
The outreach team is three sworn officers and five CSOs. The CSOs don’t have the authority to arrest and mostly handle situations in our parks. They make few arrests and do an amazing job given the stress and workload. I’d like to give a shout out to Sgt. Jack Julsing, who heads up that team. He’s been good at responding to requests from constituents and keeps in close touch with all of the ward offices.
Given how much he has to do, he’s been running a little triage. His officers don’t always respond, but he makes sure that one of our social service agency partners make visits when we hear about a camp. Basically, if a camp is causing a problem for a neighborhood, his officers respond to get that taken care of. If a camp is in an isolated location, it’s better to send an agency there to make sure that people can be offered services.
This is not just a situation that Tucson is dealing with, but that doesn’t absolve us either. We need to work on making sure that housing options are available, as well as mental and substance abuse treatment.
If there are issues with homeless people in your neighborhood, make sure to call my office or you can email TPDHOT@tucsonaz.gov.