TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Down the street from a row of trendy restaurants and boutiques, government workers scurry to work past dozens of wooden sleeping pods and tents. The growing camp in a Tucson city park near the highway exit that leads to a revitalized downtown is the scene of a pitched battle between city officials concerned with nurturing its core and protesters who say the city has unfairly criminalized homelessness.
The protesters at Veinte de Agosto Park say the growing encampment on a small, one-acre green space is a way to combat city regulations they believe unfairly target the homeless. For city officials and business owners, it's an eyesore that unfairly takes space from pedestrians and chases away visitors and tourists and their dollars.
City officials point to the human and dog excrement left behind on city sidewalks. They say the wooden pods, which are big enough only to fit two people, restrict walking space. And on Thursday, police conducted a sting that resulted in the arrest of six camp members, including its leader Jon McLane, who was charged with possession of marijuana, sale of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. Tucson police said they'd received several complaints about drugs sales at the park over the last several weeks.
The battle between the campers, a spinoff of the Occupy movement that sought social and economic equality, and government officials is also being played out in the courts. An ongoing lawsuit filed in 2012 accuses the city of targeting homeless people. A federal judge recently issued a temporary injunction against a city rule that allowed homeless people to sleep on sidewalks only if they had no more than three belongings with them.
"The District Court's order has converted the sidewalk into a 1,260 square-foot property storage facility, and if applied city-wide would effectively convert any sidewalk within the city of Tucson wider than five feet into a personal property storage facility," city attorney Mike Rankin wrote in an appeal to the injunction in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The city is also seeking Bury's clarification and amendment to his injunction and will go before the judge on March 10.
After first trying to legislate the camp away with the three possessions rule, the city now will try to entice the campers to move.
The city council on Tuesday approved a plan to move the protesters to a designated site and to create a city ordinance that would essentially ban camping in public spaces, but details have not been hashed out.
Councilmember Regina Romero said at a meeting that she supports the protesters' First Amendment rights and sympathizes with their plight, having also struggled with homelessness in her youth.
"I think it's important also to balance the rights and the needs equally of the entire community, and that includes the merchants and the visitors to our downtown. The families, the young people that want to use our downtown, our sidewalks, our parks — everyone should be able to feel safe visiting our parks wherever they are," Romero said.
McLane, a camp leader and the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city, said he was happy the city is tackling the issue of homelessness but opposed a new city ordinance targeting the homeless. McLane was a leader in the Occupy Tucson movement.
"Definitely it seems like the idea is very infant. Like they just thought it up within the last week," McLane said.
McLane said the camp offers a safe space, especially for homeless couples and those with pets, which most shelters don't accommodate.
Tucson police now regularly monitor the camp, a spokesman said.
Many homeless who live at the camp say it's been the safest place they've slept in for a long time.
"It's a community. If there were more housing and more jobs, we'd be there. People want to work," Giovanni Griffie said. Griffie and his partner lived the camp for a week after their weekly rent became too expensive.
Some business owners worry the camp will scare off tourists and shoppers.
"There's a lot of concern by both property owners and merchants about the effect that it's going to have in the present as well as everything from future leases to development projects that are being considered. So there is quite a wide discussion going on about this," said Michael Keith, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. The nonprofit aims to revitalize downtown and is in charge of weekly cleanings of the area where the campers live.
Keith said downtown has spent the last several years being revitalized and that business are concerned the camp could undo progress.
But not all business owners agree.
Claudette Myers, owner of the downtown clothing boutique Desert Bloom, said the pods are public art and make the park look nice. She said the area used to be riddled with violence and drug activity until the protesters set up camp.
"I run a high end business right around the corner from them. Most customers are women. I don't see that as a deterrent at all," Myers said.