New Suprise Law Makes 'Urban Camping' Illegal

Published: Tuesday, June 26, 2018 - 3:28pm
Updated: Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 12:51pm
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A decision made by the city of Surprise's city council is raising some concerns for those in the city of Phoenix.

Surprise lawmakers passed the city's first so-called "urban camping" ordinance, which will make it illegal for people to "camp" or store their personal goods in places like public parks.

It's aimed at homeless encampments that have had some Surprise residents concerned, according to Seth Dyson, human services and community vitality department director for the city of Surprise. But, Phoenix City Council member Kate Gallego said this is Surprise quote "exporting their homeless problem to Phoenix," and council member Michael Nowakowski asked what will happen to these individuals when there are no more shelter beds left for them.

The Show's Lauren Gilger spoke with Dyson Tuesday morning about the motivation behind this new law, and also with Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services, about her reaction to this move by Surprise.

SETH DYSON: So at one of our local parks, people were finding it difficult to use amenities, like the ramadas, because they were filled with shopping carts, treasures, other belongings for those experiencing homelessness for extended periods of time. So the city wanted to find a way to not only create a better shared environment, but to connect people who may be experiencing homelessness in need to resources and ensure, you know, our health and safety for all of our community so everyone can access the parks.

LAUREN GILGER: I know that the ordinance says it takes a "services-first approach." What does that mean?

DYSON: How the ordinance is drafted is that the first engagement with someone maybe in violation of the ordinance would be to check in on them, to say, "How are you? How did you get here? What can we help you with? What are you in search of, in need of, if anything?" So based on their response, you know, it could be, "Well, I'm interested in a shower. I'm interested in food or I'm interested in helping find a job or I'm interested in potentially housing." We can make those referrals and those services available.

GILGER: What about some of the reaction that this got in the Phoenix City Council, that this sort of puts the burden of care and shelter services, in particular, on that city because you presumably don't have the shelter beds available in Surprise to probably house many of these people?

DYSON: Yeah. I can't really comment to the city of Phoenix's response, but what I can share is that we do work with other regional partners because we know homelessness doesn't have boundaries and that's clear. So we work very closely with other nonprofits, those in and outside of Phoenix, doesn't matter where the nonprofits located if they can help us provide services to our residents. Some examples, we work with a nonprofit in Glendale that has been able to house some of our individuals we found experiencing homelessness and they accepted services and we've even worked with a couple of groups in Mesa. In fact, we invest in Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), the shelter, as a city. We have a small investment in UMOM, which is helping the whole region with coordinated entry. We work with MAG, who operates the continuum of care and specifically, we're working with other West Valley cities. We're starting and continuing conversations about, "What do homeless services look like in the West Valley?"

GILGER: Do you think that opens you up to, sort of, legal issues or challenges if the city is enforcing an ordinance like this but doesn't have the shelter services to support it?

DYSON: So we looked at other best practices out there, and in a legal setting, it looks like how we've drafted this meets all of the legal criteria, meaning we can't enforce an urban camping ordinance without shelter services. So in how our draft is written, it does include that. This says we can't arrest someone if they don't accept services, if their services are not available. So a prime example is if a family experiencing homelessness needs shelter, but we do not have any available openings in family shelters in the region, we can't enforce that. We wrote that specifically because that's not fair to the person and that's not helping anyone out, at that point. So really, our enforcement's a last resort.

GILGER: The last thing I want to ask you, Seth, is a broader question about sort of the message that this sends and the other solutions that might address homelessness from the other side of the issue. Is Surprise working on building affordable housing to try and address this problem or preventative services?

DYSON: Yes. We are working in partnership with an affordable housing development that will be coming in, that is slated to come in, so we're excited about that. We know affordable housing is one of the main issues around homelessness across our country. But we are also looking at expanding services. The city, this past year, has invested just over 20,000 dollars into either direct homeless services or to try to establish maybe some local services through different models. We're looking at increased homeless prevention services. We've added workforce development services, but we also help people, you know, apply for benefits. So as you know, and I think by the way you based your question, you understand that it's not a one kind of approach. It's the comprehensive approach.

GILGER: All right. Seth Dyson is the human services and community vitality department director for the city of Surprise. Seth, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

DYSON: Thank you for having me. My pleasure.

GILGER: But despite the efforts by those in Surprise to take a service-first approach here, ordinances like these are more problematic than they might seem. That's according to Lisa Glow, CEO of CASS or Central Arizona Shelter Services, the major organization that provides shelter and support services in Phoenix. I also spoke with her this morning about this move by Surprise and her reaction to it.

LISA GLOW: Well, I'm definitely concerned, but I'm also understanding where they're coming from, and I'm looking at what their intentions actually are. I know some of the elected officials in Surprise and they're greatly concerned about the rise in homelessness throughout Maricopa County. So it's not so cut and dry. The ordinance takes a services-first approach. So their intention is to first approach individuals who may be doing urban camping, so-called urban camping, and try to get them into services. I don't know how they'll enforce it if people refuse services. That's where the challenges will come in.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So walk us through that. I mean, how do ordinances like these generally work? Like, you're not arrested if you are found sleeping in a public park, for example, you're asked to go to a shelter?

GLOW: That's correct, although, across the country, this is a very hot topic and issue, and there have been places where they've criminalized homelessness and arrested people and taken their possessions. So there have been some very interesting legal challenges. The debate is, are we criminalizing homelessness or are we helping address the health safety and welfare of communities? The underlying major concern is there have been a lot of mass encampments across the country, in cities like Portland and Seattle, where they've had real health outbreaks. San Diego, in fact, had a hepatitis outbreak. So how do you deal with that? The legal challenges I'm finding are pretty fascinating, and they range from anything to Eighth Amendment constitutional challenges. That happened in Los Angeles a number of years ago, and they settled that case. The ACLU settled in the Jones vs Los Angeles case. Well once they settled it, because the ordinance was so broad, there was a rise in the number of people that were camping and even more homelessness. Well, that didn't solve this issue, and so now they've passed some tax things that the voters have voted for that's going to help build more affordable housing. They had a tax to fund 1.2 billion of housing, some of it for the chronically homeless. So we can't criminalize our way out of this social issue.

GILGER: So I want to talk about one of those points you mentioned. So Phoenix City Council member, Michael Nowakowski released a statement about this after Surprise passed this ordinance and said there will be times when CASS reaches capacity and can't accept individuals, and he's asking the city of Surprise, what will happen then, basically, and as the person in charge at CASS, I'll bring that question to you. What will happen if a city like Surprise is trying to enforce this ordinance in a service-focused way to bring these people into a shelter situation and you're full?

GLOW: Right. Well, that is a problem because we will have to turn people away. If there's nowhere for them to be sheltered and they get turned away, I think that does present challenges from cities like Surprise or other places, if they're bringing their individuals who are experiencing homelessness, the politically correct term, to our campus and that is happening. So they, then, could be sued by the ACLU, representing individuals who were turned away on any of these various constitutional challenges that have been successful in other cities being challenged. So if they don't have sufficient shelter beds, that what the lawsuits have found, is that you have to provide sufficient shelter beds or do outreach and offer services. So the Surprise ordinance does say the first effort is to offer services, but they certainly don't have the shelter beds, so chances are they will be bringing them to CASS. It's far more complicated, and the problem with these kind of ordinances, where we're criminalizing homelessness, is we're not really addressing it for what it is, which is a social issue.

GILGER: Councilman Nowakowski also said that he's calling for a regional approach to the social problem of homelessness, like you say. Do you think that there is a regional approach at this point or that that needs to happen?

GLOW: I absolutely think that needs to happen, and I think through the years, the regions throughout Maricopa County, the cities and elected officials, have really pulled together to come up with creative solutions to homelessness. CASS was founded 34 years ago in response to a regional outcry for leadership because there were lots of encampments, just like we have today, throughout Maricopa County, but especially in downtown Phoenix. Thirteen years ago, what's called the Human Services Campus was created in response to a regional approach, again, and I think we're at the third wave of a much needed regional approach because homelessness is dramatically on the rise, not just in Arizona but across the country. It's not getting better, and we don't have the housing. We don't have the shelter. We don't have the mental health services, so we have to have a regional approach.

GILGER: That's Lisa Glow, chief executive officer of Central Arizona Shelter Services. Lisa, thank you so much for the time this morning.

GLOW: Thank you.

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