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Tucson Weekly Homeless Help?

Is The Latest Plan To Help Tucson's Transients A Sincere Effort, Or A Mere Scheme?

By Dave Devine

CAN YET ANOTHER attempt to develop a cooperative solution on where and how to feed Tucson's homeless population really succeed? Will the City Council vote to implement the proposed recommendations, even if they make their own jobs more miserable?

Those are two of the questions to be answered Monday when the Council discusses the idea of "multiple service centers"--a euphemism for shifting the city's homeless feeding site from Toole Avenue downtown to six sites scattered across the community, one in each City Council ward.

The incentive behind this latest move is the constant complaints about problems around the Toole building. Homeless folks congregating there harass business customers on Fourth Avenue, break into homes in the surrounding neighborhoods, and threaten people in public parks, critics claim.

The need to shift Tucson from a philosophy of feeding everyone who asks for a free meal to helping only those who want to end their homelessness is also being pushed. The City Council will be urged to endorse the concept that people who won't participate in social service programs or do a few hours of volunteer work in exchange for their meals should not be fed.

The proposal also seeks to limit the number of people served at each of the six scattered sites to 50. Currently, the Toole facility serves more than 200 people daily, sometimes as many as 280.

Bob Lane, a member of the task force recommending these changes, stresses the process was a cooperative effort between sometimes-competing groups. He emphasizes that neighborhood residents like himself worked with downtown business people and representatives of the homeless organization Primavera Foundation and the Pima County Interfaith Council to develop the proposals.

But the Salvation Army, the agency that now operates the Toole program for the city, recently resigned from the task force. Army officials complained implementation of some of the new proposals would cause them to compromise their philosophy of service to the needy.

Lane said the task force wanted to show compassion for the homeless while demanding responsibility from people for their behavior. He believes the recommendations will create a better model for helping those who want to end their homelessness. It is, he says, "a responsible program for those who want to get their lives together." But, he admits, those who aren't fed will have to be dealt with somehow.

If the City Council accepts the proposed concept, the next step will be to determine where the six scattered feeding sites would be. These sites would also offer services such as showers, lockers and mailboxes.

Once the sites are identified, the city officials would solicit bids to operate the new program. After the six locations are operational, the food program at the Toole facility would end and the building would be used instead for a job-training center or some other purpose. The task force has set a deadline of eight months from adoption of the concept to opening the six sites.

Libby Stone, director of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association and a member of the task force, believes putting the recommendations into play will benefit the entire downtown area.

But Paul Gattone, director of the Southern Arizona People's Law Center, thinks the Toole site is appropriate for the feeding program. Instead of closing the building, Gattone says the city should implement some of the additional services originally proposed for the facility which were never established.

Gattone also points out that it took the city almost two years to agree on the Toole location. So he estimates it might take a decade to select six new sites. Plus, he adds, if there are troublemakers visiting the Toole building, they should be dealt with. He adds that he fears moving the feeding program is a step toward the eventual call for eliminating it entirely.

Brian Flagg, who runs the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, labels the mandatory enrollment in social service programs "absurd" and "ridiculous." He says this proposal is just an offer of imaginary help. There aren't enough services now for mental health problems or alcoholism, he points out, so how would the system handle even more people?

Instead of requiring volunteer labor, Flagg would like the city to offer a real jobs program which paid a decent wage to those being fed. And while he's open to the scattered-site approach, he'd like to see the six locations up and going before the Toole operation is closed.

Photo by Dominic Oldershaw

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