Dignified Displacement 

There are more problems with Tucson's homeless than pods or sleeping in the park

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JD Fitzgerald

Kyle Barber hasn't had a home in close to a decade, partly due to a previous acute addiction to spice—synthetic marijuana—and partly due to a felony in his record that makes him unhireable in the eyes of many employers.

About three years ago, the 32-year-old drifted to the Grand Canyon state from Wisconsin eager for a fresh start. He connected with several Tucson organizations—La Frontera, CODAC Behavioral Health Services and COPE Community Services—to get back on his feet.

"Man, I got promised everything, they'd be calling my phone and saying, 'It is time to start getting you off the streets,' three and a half years later and I am still here," he says.

It's been more than 10 years since he was charged with attempted armed robbery, but his past is a scarlet letter for all jobs and some low-income housing.

"Once you become part of the whole system, you are wrapped in for the rest of your life," he says. He admits this is a reason community organizations haven't been able to help much, but that pisses him off. Here he is trying to move forward, but his past constantly haunts him.

"Serious mental illness" is another label hanging from his neck. He has bipolar disorder.

Being SMI could get him some Social Security monetary help, but he didn't qualify. Most of the time, young guys like Barber get a "no" the first time they sign up, and when they file for reconsideration, there's an 85 percent chance they will be denied again, according to Art Gage Law, a group of Tucson attorneys that take many of these cases. Barber has been told that he is too coherent and too cognitive. "I have a judge, excuse the phrase, cock blocking me from that," he says.

At homeless shelters he says he felt more like cattle than a human trying to infiltrate back into society. He stopped standing in line for those.

Three months ago, Barber found Safe Park—a small community of houseless residents that have occupied downtown's Veinte de Agosto Park and some surrounding areas since 2013. The group's main purpose is to give people a stable place to stay, and to advocate for more dignified services that combat systemic homelessness. Long before getting a name though, advocates would sleep at Veinte de Agosto as part of a protest against the criminalization of homelessness.

Barber feels like he's part of something now—a movement where he can help keep others from going down the same self-destructive path he did, as well as shed light on the major gaps in rehabilitation services for the homeless.

On this Friday afternoon, he sits on a bus stop bench across from Veinte de Agosto with two other Safe Park friends, Zack Blaylock and Arnold Nabb. The three—who wear matching baby blue Safe Park t-shirts—refer to each other as brothers. "Every day these guys help me. Piece of wisdom here, piece of wisdom there," Barber says.

Lately, Safe Park's gotten a bad rep over the 40-plus so-called dream pods that took over the sidewalks right in the face of Pima County's administration building. The city kicked them out weeks ago over health and safety concerns—drugs, human waste everywhere, unleashed dogs—which was a huge success for businesses, who'd been trying to get them out, especially as the Tucson Gem Show approached.

About a month ago, Safe Park founder Jon McLane and five others were arrested on drug charges in an undercover police sting. The homeless advocate faces three counts including the sale and possession of pot. He says it was entrapment. "They are trying to turn the public against us," he says.

When it was time to move out the pods, homeless service representatives conducted the usual talk on what options they had. But according to McLane, and several others, these aren't as sweet and simple as they sound.

Since his arrest, McLane isn't allowed back in Veinte de Agosto. "If they felt there were better choices for them, they would be there, whether a shelter or transitioning housing. They are choosing not to go to those places for the same reason I choose not to go to those places, because they are insufficient, because they are inhumane," he says.

Although McLane has burnt bridges with many organizations and other homeless advocates, they all find common ground in one thing: where are all of these displaced people supposed to go?

"While we do have some resources, we don't have anywhere near enough," says Michele Ream, who's worked with the homeless for about two decades now. She was involved in the beginning stages of Safe Park, but became disillusioned with McLane's leadership and says the movement took a turn for the worst. "The type of resources we offer don't meet (everyone's) needs. You want us to focus on the chronically homeless, but there are so many barriers to get them the services they need."

Many shelters and services have unrealistic expectations, such as requiring people to have an ID and obey all of these rules (when to eat, when to go to bed, when to wake up), she says. For the ones who do have an identification, it's a matter of getting lucky and nailing a bed at places like the Salvation Army.

Ream says while working at the Primavera Foundation she gets at least 25 people every day whom she cannot house in "any way shape or form." For the most part, those who ask her for help will not get it that day (1 in 1,000 will, she says). At first, it was nice to have a place like Safe Park, to refer people.

"In that way it was good, then towards the end, it sort of went a little too far," she says. "There was a point where it was great and it raised awareness and it got people that might not have thought about homelessness involved ... the message got lost. It became about the pods being in people's faces. 'Why do we have thousands of folks who have nowhere to be?' That message, in the beginning, was more out there; toward the end, it got lost."

And not everyone who is homeless is on board, either.

Steve, a 60-year-old Tucsonan who's been on the streets for more than a decade, calls the pods and the Safe Park people an "embarrassment."

"These people are running their lives, running their businesses, people don't want to shop while you are going to the bathroom," he says. "I heard people were defecating down the ventilation. I don't understand it. As a homeless person, I am already a second-class citizen. They're a bunch of meth heads. I don't want to be involved with that." (He, too, hates shelters and has been in a waiting list for housing for more than one year.)

McLane and Safe Park supporters hope that one day all of the negativity won't continue to overshadow the core of the movement.

"We are simply trying to help people. We are trying to create some solutions, no matter what combatants we have. We are going to continue to push forward on creating those solutions. It is not about politics, it is about these people out here, who are living, relatively, miserable lives and deserve better," he says.

For Barber, it was about having stability, a place where he could store his things and go to sleep at night without a seven-day limit.

"(This) has taught me one thing: you better walk with dignity. You are no different than anybody else," he says.

More by María Inés Taracena

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