Street Sweep

The City Council finds few jobs for the hawkers it boots off medians.

May 1 is International Workers Day, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker for Catholics, and the day 50 workers will be banned from using Tucson's street medians to make a living.

Under the provisions of a controversial City ordinance adopted last October, being in a roadway to solicit employment, business or contributions from passing motorists becomes a misdemeanor on Tuesday. Thus, the 50 people who sell newspapers off medians around town will be out of work next week. In addition, all the homeless people sitting on medians begging for a handout will also become lawbreakers. Violations of the new law carry a maximum penalty of $250, 25 hours of community service work and/or a day in jail.

The six members of the City Council who supported the ordinance in October stressed it was a safety issue and not simply a way to get homeless beggars off Tucson's streets. They pointed out that three people had been killed while standing on medians in 1998.

Brian Flagg of the Casa Maria soup kitchen, however, belittles that explanation. "That is just an out-and-out sham," Flagg says of the safety argument. "The ordinance is all about aesthetics, making Tucson more attractive by shoving the homeless someplace where they can't be seen. But the homeless aren't going away just because of this mean-spirited ban."

When the ordinance was adopted, Council members promised to make an effort to find work for the median newspaper sellers who would lose their jobs. But bureaucratic snafus meant that a job fair for these people wasn't held until a few weeks ago, and most of them will be unemployed after Tuesday.

Flagg says these workers don't want welfare, but many of them will have difficulty finding other employment because of their appearance and lack of training. Council members Jerry Anderson, Jose Ibarra and Steve Leal recently supported a proposal to extend the ordinance's implementation date until jobs could be found for the displaced workers. But finding a fourth vote on the Council to extend the deadline, Flagg admits, will be very difficult.

TO MARK THE significance of May 1 to local workers, a rally will be held Tuesday at 4 p.m. on the medians at the corner of 22nd Street and Alvernon Way. Among other things, the event will include the introduction of City Life, a free monthly newspaper that will contain general news and information written by and about Tucson's homeless people and the 20 percent of the city's population that lives in poverty.

While some people will be taking to the streets on Tuesday, nobody will apparently be going to court to halt the new ordinance. Six months ago there was talk that Tucson Newspapers Inc., the company that distributes the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen, might file a lawsuit to stop the ban from being implemented, since the Citizen will lose 2,400 sales a day off the medians. But according to Randy Cross, vice-president for circulation for TNI, the company has no plans for a lawsuit "at this time."

As for the law that will put 50 people out of work next week, Brian Flagg concludes, "It's about banning the homeless, whether they have jobs or not."

But will all the people who during the winter are found sitting at seemingly every major intersection in town with a cardboard sign reading, "Please Help--God Bless" actually be affected by the ordinance? Given the remote possibility of being cited for a misdemeanor charge, will they really stop begging on city streets?

Responses from some of those who will be affected range across the board. One woman said she "will keep doing it" regardless of the new law. But a man at Speedway and Campbell indicated he probably wouldn't continue to use the medians. A third person staked out at a median laughed, "I won't be here anyway on May 1. I'll be in Chicago by then."

The ordinance could also affect many more people besides homeless beggars and newspaper hawkers. While the media have strictly focused on people who use street medians, the new law isn't that specific, and may result in substantial unintended consequences.

The ordinance states, "No person shall stand upon or otherwise occupy a street or highway and solicit or attempt to solicit employment, business, contributions, donations or sales of any kind from the occupant of any vehicle." Therefore, people near curbs, from teenagers in tank tops urging passing motorists into a charitable car wash to people staffing the recently omnipresent stands selling University of Arizona "Final Four" merchandise, will become potential criminals. After all, they are using the streets to solicit business, just like beggars and newspaper sellers.

Also off the street will be the "Fill the Boot" campaign to fight muscular dystrophy. The firefighters who manned medians in the past to collect contributions will this year be found at Fry's stores. Officials at the Southern Arizona chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, however, believe the change won't hurt them financially, and agree that people should be off the medians.

How others who currently use streets to solicit business are affected by the new law remains to be seen. It will be a question of enforcement, and by the deadline for this article the Tucson Police Department had yet to issue instructions to its officers about how the new law was going to be implemented.

So the unanswered question remains: Will TPD enforce the law evenhandedly, or will it clamp down on the homeless and look the other way when it comes to promoters of charity events or political sign-wavers, especially if these people are next to the curb and not on the median?

According to TNI's Randy Cross, "We'll be watching very closely to insure the ban is enforced uniformly." If that happens, there is a real possibility that along with the homeless on medians, people waving signs in back of the curb may soon hear the police say, "Book 'em."

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