Homeless advocates push for help and services - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Homeless advocates push for help and services

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Community leaders continue to hold talks about chronic homelessness in Tucson.  Advocates say there are about 7,000 people facing chronic homelessness.  Many of them are sleeping in tunnels and washes.

Others are spending the night on sidewalks and on top of buildings throughout Tucson.

Despite the city's efforts to clean up Viente De Agosto Park with a big crackdown earlier this year, the city's homeless continue to sleep on the side walks outside the park, now taped of for re-seeding and maintenance.

Those who are arrested there and ordered by a judge not to return have found a new place to sleep.

Business owners contacted Tucson News Now saying Jacome Plaza, also known as the library park was the new spot for the homeless to gather at night.

Signs posted along the park stated the park closed at 10:30.

Tucson Police Officer Chris Hawkins who worked on bicycle patrol in the downtown district said they were very fair when enforcing city code.

"If they are inside the plaza after it closes they can be cited or arrested for that," explained Hawkins.

Jon McLane, an advocate for the homeless community and the founder of Safe Parks, areas designated as legal places for them to sleep said it was a big problem in Tucson.

"80-90% of people on the streets are chronically homeless," said McLane.

McLane has led a fight in the city to create areas where they can be, without the fear of arrest or harassment.

"The city's largest strategy is harassment.  To make homeless people feel uncomfortable.  I think they want people to hide, it's their overall objective," said McLane.

McLane routinely shot video of police cracking down on homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, and posted the videos on his YouTube page.

"They'll go three weeks to a month without enforcing, then come in one day and arrest 20 people at one time," said McLane.

Officer Hawkins explained that it was legal for people to sleep on the sidewalk from 10 PM to 7 AM, but they were not allowed to be in the park after hours.  

"The most common things we arrest people for are being in the park, trespassing, narcotics, drinking in public, and urinating in public that's a big one," said Hawkins.

Police said nearby businesses had been complaining about the homeless, saying they chased customers away.

"You can get away with anything downtown if you're homeless.  I've been assaulted, in fact I got 5 assaults on me down here.  We've had shoplifting, had my bathrooms vandalized. Someone actually tried to rip the toilet out twice last year," said Nathan Hewser, a manager at Subway on Congress Street.

Hewser said he had put up signs in his business stating the restrooms were only for customers, locked up the restroom and put the key behind the counter, and put a sign on the soda fountain stating that water cups could only have water in them.

"They get cups for water and I'll give it to them, but then to go get soda.  That's shoplifting," said Hewser.

McLane said he could not control the actions of every homeless person in the city.

"How does he know they are homeless though," questioned McLane.

Tucson Police have arrested dozens of people in the last few months for violating city codes. McLane said most of the homeless were not looking for trouble, they just wanted a place to sleep.  Although McLane admitted many of the chronically homeless are facing severe mental health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction.

They were people who had overstayed their welcome at local shelters which had a 30-day rule, or those who were not allowed inside the shelters for substance abuse problems.

"It's a shame the city wants to address it this way instead of looking for ways to get them help," said McLane.

He was encouraged after several community leaders stepped up, wanting to meet and address the issues.

McLane said most of the homeless just wanted a good night's sleep.  They were not even worried about  being woken up by police flashlights anymore.

"I've been arrested 43 times.  It's a process.  You get arrested, you go to jail, you get to eat as many sandwiches as you want.  This time of year it's actually cooler in there.  A lot of people will just go to jail, go to the mental health facility to get a vacation off the street and these triple digit temperatures.  They call it R&R," said McLane.

McLane said he hoped the city would work toward providing counseling and better services for the chronically homeless population in the city.

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