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An Influx of Homeless People Dismays Growing Arizona City

Dilemma: Civic leaders complain that many newcomers are nasty and commit crimes. Some of their solutions anger activists, however.

March 08, 1998|MICHELLE RUSHLO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Prescott's town square is like a step back in time.

Ringed by historic saloons and businesses such as a soda fountain and a burger shop, its centerpiece is a courthouse with a built-in clock and a sidewalk timeline of Arizona history--noting such events as Prescott being named territorial capital.

More and more, however, a trip downtown also includes an encounter with one or more of Prescott's growing number of homeless people, something few people here could have imagined until recently.

Now city leaders and charitable organizations are trying to decide how to deal with the homeless. And critics say one proposal is a thinly disguised ticket out of town: having them register with police and submit to a warrant check before getting help from agencies that participate in the program.

To the dismay of many longtime residents, the outside world has discovered the small-town charm, picturesque setting and mild weather of this mile-high city 75 miles north of Phoenix. Small towns around Prescott have become booming suburbs. Malls are going up. The area's roads are strained.

But few problems have galvanized the community as much as the homeless, whose population is estimated at 100 in the winter and 250 in the summer. They are drawn here by some of the same things that attract everyone else: great weather and a growing community with more money to spread around.

"We're having trouble with types of crimes we never had before: muggings, murders, people being beat up," said Jim Lamerson, president of the Downtown Prescott Commission, a business group.

"They're aggressive. They're nasty. When people do not give them enough money or money at all, they are nasty," Lamerson said.

Mounting concern over transients has prompted city officials, business owners and social service agencies to back a plan that would ask those seeking help to go to the police station first to get an identification card.

Backers of the plan insist it is voluntary, but most of the city's social service agencies have already said they will refuse to serve meals or house those without the cards. Agencies that reject the plan probably will get flooded with people who refuse to go to the police.

Under the proposal, which is scheduled for City Council consideration on March 18, police would run warrant checks on those seeking help and then send them to the Salvation Army. It would refer them to various social service agencies.

"It's not like we're trying to zero in on the homeless and persecute them," City Atty. John Moffitt said. "We're trying to get rid of the criminal element and trying to get help to those that need it."

The city's homeless, however, don't see it that way.

"It will clear out all of the homeless people for everyone who has money," said Bob Bunch, 53. "By the time they figure out it's unconstitutional, it'll be too late."

Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, said the proposal probably is unconstitutional, though proponents tout it as voluntary.

"There are issues of privacy. There are issues of the conditioning of benefits that are available to people on their willingness to essentially get an identification card. If they can condition these benefits on this, are they going to condition other entitlements?" she said.

Lamerson said he and other community leaders in this city of 38,000 are just fed up with the rising crime and the vandalism by transients.

"I'm a very generous person in a lot of ways. But someone being poor or being homeless is no excuse for bad behavior," he said. "My hand is out to poor people; my hand is just not out to someone who is a jerk."

The Salvation Army and other social services agencies seem to agree. Many have already decided to refuse service to those without the identification cards.

Capt. Norma Jackson of the Salvation Army said she doesn't see anything wrong with the plan.

"They don't find it degrading to stand in line and wait for soup. To me, that's a cop-out," she said.

Jean Frank, director of the men's shelter Project Aware, said she plans to participate. While she probably will allow men to stay one night without the identification, she said she will turn them away after that.

Vance Van Horn, 45, a homeless man who works at Project Aware, said he still has no intention of getting the ID card.

"I have nothing to hide. It's just the idea of it. They are trying to make it more of a communist state. You should have the right to come and go," he said.

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