Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos says a county ordinance to ban panhandling on medians isn't about sending people to jail—it's about public safety concerns.
During a meeting in northwest Tucson on April 25, residents demanded Nanos to rid the area of panhandlers and homeless camps. People said they were fed up with excessive trash, crime, and so on.
That night, "[Supervisor Ally Miller] asked if I would stand up and support her in front of the board for her panhandling ordinance, I told her I cannot do that, sheriffs shouldn't be involved in politics," Nanos told the Weekly
. "You are politicizing a homeless issue that should be handled by politicians. They should come together for those type of issues, don't put the sheriff in a political situation like that." Miller has tried twice before to pass a similar ordinance but didn't get much support.
Still, from a public safety standpoint, Nanos says he is supporting the ordinance, because "people don't need to be on medians. It is not a safe environment. People are driving 40, 45 miles an hour. I will give into this band-aid, and let's handle it as a civil violation."
Last Tuesday, Pima County Sheriff deputies began to patrol more than a dozen intersections in northwest Tucson to inform homeless men and women panhandling on medians that they have to move or later on face a citation (and maybe even arrest, if it gets bad enough) for trespassing. If it passes, the ordinance would prohibit people from sitting or standing on medians for long periods of time. Anyone in violation would get something similar to a traffic ticket, according to Nanos.
Tucson homeless advocate Roy Trout wasn't at the meeting, but he says this is a classic move to continue the criminalization of poverty and homelessness. "Many people who can't work depend on that money, because they have no other source," Trout says. "I have been out there for 22 years, I have a good idea of what it's like to be on the streets."
For years, Trout sold newspapers on medians—until the City of Tucson banned it back in 2001 amid reports of injuries including two deaths. "We have society telling us, 'go get a job.' Well, I had a job. I was selling newspapers...that was my job and you all took that job from me. I don't qualify for much else. I have been on the streets since I was 15."
Nanos agrees that this ordinance doesn't address homelessness and its root causes. His job is to ensure all county residents are safe, but he says we ought to invest in housing people, job training programs, as well as mental health and substance abuse services.
"Have some humanity, and let's find them a home," Nanos says.
Until an ordinance passes, sheriff's deputies will only issue warnings.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors will take a look at a draft of the ordinance on May 17.