TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A White House Cabinet member visited Tucson on Thursday for an event to tally the homeless as the city deals with a legal battle over an encampment in the middle of downtown.
The city's rules on where and when homeless people can sleep are being challenged in federal court. Meanwhile, a judge last month issued an injunction against a city regulation that allows homeless people to sleep on sidewalks but only if they have just three belongings with them.
Activists with a group called Occupy Public Land have since set up sleeping pods on sidewalks at a downtown park, arguing that they and other homeless people are practicing their First Amendment rights in part by having political and social messages on the pods.
There don't appear to be other tent cities or camps that use the First Amendment to justify their stay, said Eric Tars, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. In the past, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that spread to many cities had used First Amendment protections to live in public spaces past regular hours. But most of those groups have since disbanded.
"I would say at this point the Tucson situation is pretty unique," Tars said.
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the city is abiding by the injunction but also monitoring the situation.
"I think the reality of it is that people who see that will ordinarily walk across the street," Rothschild said. "We have our law enforcement officials watching the situation carefully, and we're trying to get our social services out there to offer services."
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said he and other Cabinet members were participating in counts across the country in an Obama administration effort to combat homelessness, especially among military veterans.
"There's a sizable homeless population here in Tucson. Our goal is to make sure that we send a very strong signal across this nation that we're all in this together and our goal is to end homelessness and we're not going to stop until we reach it," Perez said.
The order issued by Judge David C. Bury stems from an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2012 over city regulations of use of sidewalks and parks that activists said unfairly targeted people who wanted to camp in public parks, including the homeless.
"Our goal, just like any of the other institutions, is to help people transition," activist Jon McLane said. "The people that feel stuck, the people that don't want to be on the streets — I don't want them to be here either." McLane was an early leader in the Occupy movement in Tucson.
His group filed a request for an injunction after Tucson instituted a new protocol that allowed protesters to sleep on city sidewalks but restricted what they could have to one blanket, one bedroll and a beverage.
Bury's injunction, issued last month, prohibits police from arresting homeless protesters who have more than three items. The city has also repainted a black line on the sidewalk near the park that marks where the homeless can sleep. About 40 people live there, McLane said. They must leave at least 5 feet of passageway on the sidewalk.
"While the city suggests the (policy) is designed to allow First Amendment activities, but when applied to homeless individuals it does the exact opposite. Homeless people have nowhere to store their personal items and must keep their personal items with them at all times, even when exercising their First Amendment rights," Bury wrote.
Tent cities or encampments are in at least 46 of the 50 states, Tars said. In San Jose, California, officials last month began clearing out "the jungle," a famous encampment with hundreds of people that was at times violent. Some of those people were placed in housing. Others said they didn't know where they would go.
Follow Astrid Galván on Twitter at http://twitter.com/astridgalvan.