A Flagstaff police officer issues a citation to a homeless man for camping… (Josh Biggs, Arizona Daily…)
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Matt Evans realized Flagstaff's efforts to criminalize panhandling had reached new heights when a police officer intercepted him as he attempted to hand a $10 bill to a homeless family in a supermarket parking lot.
"These people are breaking the law," Evans said the officer told him. She said that giving the money would be akin to facilitating a crime.
Stunned, the 34-year-old PhD candidate looked again at the homeless couple with two young children in tow.
"I have every right to give anyone I want money," Evans told the officer. He handed the cash to the family and drove away with his wife, 3-year-old son and their groceries.
Police never cited Evans. However, Flagstaff officers have arrested an estimated 135 people over the course of a year on suspicion of loitering to beg. In some cases, they've been jailed.
Evans' story and the arrests sparked a lawsuit in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona against the city of Flagstaff, accusing municipal leaders of unconstitutionally driving beggars off the streets and criminalizing peaceful panhandling in public places. Flagstaff is enforcing a state statute that forbids panhandling in public places.
Although Arizona mirrors a national trend of municipalities and states creating or invoking laws to deter panhandling and control movements of the homeless, enforcement in the Grand Canyon State has been exceptionally aggressive, said Heather Maria Johnson, civil rights director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington.
"I think this is an example of extreme enforcement," she said. It's more common for law enforcement officials to give out a citation for begging or panhandling. Arrest and incarceration happen but are rare, she added.
Kimberly Ott, assistant to Flagstaff's city manager for communications, said city officials would not comment on homelessness and panhandling because of pending litigation.
"The lawsuit will be reviewed by our city attorney, our police chief and our City Council at which time direction will be given toward a response to the court of jurisdiction," Ott said in a prepared statement.
Flagstaff is a tourist hub, with boutiques, restaurants and university students. However, tension peaks during this time of year. The homeless population swells in the summer when transients from southern Arizona looking to escape the sweltering desert seek higher and cooler temperatures north.
On a recent Saturday, John Duncan sat on a park bench at Heritage Square in the heart of Flagstaff, watching tourists mill around. Duncan normally spends winter in Phoenix. Every summer for the last eight years he's made the seasonal trek to Flagstaff. The 51-year-old, who became homeless after his wife left him and his mother died, normally sleeps in the woods to avoid trouble with police.
"It's extremely hard. They really make it hard for you," Duncan said. "If we pass out here at 12:01 a.m. and the park closes, you're going to jail. They don't even ask you questions. They just take you to jail."
Same goes with holding a sign asking for money, he said. Duncan said he knows better than to do that.
Some states have passed similar statutes against begging. Others have invoked old and dormant laws, said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who is serving as co-counsel in the ACLU lawsuit.
Although courts throughout the country have found that laws against aggressive panhandling and harassment are constitutional, they've ruled that peaceful begging is protected by the Constitution and cannot be outlawed by states and municipalities, Jordahl said.
About 30 miles southwest of Flagstaff is Sedona, known as a progressive enclave of spiritual healing that draws in tourists from around the world. The red rocks and New Age spirituality also attract transients from across the nation, said Eliza Louden of Catholic Charities, who runs a program to help people transition out of homelessness.
Louden said that she had never heard of transients being arrested in Sedona for panhandling, but that many don't stay very long. Instead, authorities there direct them to her center in Cottonwood.
"You don't want to be in Sedona as a transient. There are no services in Sedona," she said.
But the road to Cottonwood is a 19-mile stretch of highway. Some transients are lucky enough to score a ride. A few end up walking the whole way — arriving at Louden's shelter dangerously parched and tired, she said.
Becky O'Banion, owner of an arts and crafts store in downtown Sedona for more than 20 years, said the homeless population there is "invisible."
She said there are restrictions against busking in Sedona, which she thinks is fair given the expensive overhead she has to pay to operate her shop. Some people who she suspects were transients have visited her shop from time to time, to escape winter cold or summer heat. She doesn't mind much, unless they start begging in her store.
Dave Egan, a cashier at a cowboy wares shop in Sedona, takes issue with how the city treats its transients. About a decade ago there was a large transient population, but slowly they left, said Egan, who has lived in the area since 1997.
"It's illegal to be homeless here," said Egan, half jokingly. "They don't want to acknowledge the problem."
Moving the visibility of homelessness away from downtown areas is common in some cities but not the solution, said Johnson of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. To criminalize panhandling and other acts associated with homelessness is counterproductive and ends up perpetuating the problem, she said.
"They are just moving homeless people off the streets as opposed to addressing the underlying cause of homelessness," she said.