Discussing the Displaced

Jon McLane has spent the past two years living on the streets of Tucson. He's one of thousands of homeless men, women and children who usually don't get much attention from this community. Except when they're considered as being in the way.

The latest instance of this is the effort by city officials to move the homeless people who have taken up residence along the edge of Veinte de Agosto Park downtown for the past few months. The idea apparently is to hide that element from the view of tourists and dealers who are in the area for the annual gem and mineral shows.

Though concerned with the city's treatment of the homeless since first becoming one of them in 2011, McLane decided that enough was enough—something needed to be done, and people needed to start talking.

"I felt like the time was right for this 2 1/2 years ago," said the 30-year-old McLane, a former organizer of Occupy Tucson who also founded the nonprofit known as Occupy Public Lands. "But within the past two weeks, with all the drama about the gem show coming in, and (the city) possibly evicting us ..."

McLane was referring to recent efforts to boot those living in what's known as Safe Park, a homeless camp that's taken over the east side of Veinte de Agosto Park. It's occupied each night by between 30 and 40 people, he said.

McLane is the driving force behind a panel discussion on homelessness that is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown. The panel consists of McLane and other local activists as well as Tucson Parks and Recreation deputy director Greg Jackson and Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith.

The forum, which is free and open to the public, will be moderated by Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller.

Each panelist is expected to make a short presentation on their perspective of the region's homeless situation, followed by questions and comments from the audience.

"Every panel guest is going to come with ... solutions that they've been consulting on," McLane said. "We want this to go beyond casual ideas."

According to McLane, the Pima County Health Department's most recent estimate of the local homeless population is around 7,600. McLane said he's seen that number grow during his 12 years of living in Tucson. And since he made the choice to live on the streets during the Occupy Tucson movement (he put his belongings in storage, selling them over time)—he's seen just how little the community pays attention to homelessness.

"In Tucson there's probably hundreds of dog advocates or horse advocates or AIDS advocates," he said. "But it's a very barren place when it comes to homeless advocacy. It's not as popular as the other type of causes."

Some facts you might not know: Tucson has an ordinance against sleeping outside between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., while staying in parks after hours is against the law, too. As a result, the homeless must shuffle after hours in search of somewhere to rest as well as a place to use the bathroom.

McLane said the nearest accessible bathroom to downtown for the homeless is a port-a-potty set up on the sidewalk at the northeast corner of De Anza Park, at Speedway and Stone.

McLane said his ultimate goal is for each of the city's five wards to have some sort of campsite area for the homeless, with bathrooms and locker rooms. While that's a long-term goal, he believes the first step in making that happen is Saturday's forum.

McLane acknowledges that it's hard to get people to care about the homeless, which is why he's hoping for a variety of opinions and potential solutions at the forum.

"Even if they feel like they're on the fence, we want all possible perspectives to be at the forum so we ensure the solution that we come up with is the best solution," McLane said.

The free panel discussion runs from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. For more info, call 329-9192.

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