Filler A Modest Proposal

Why Not Park Tucson's Chronic Homeless People At The Drive-In Theatre? Seriously.
By Vicki Hart

WHILE LOCAL OFFICIALS throw $4 million at Bill Gates, the richest man in America, to persuade him to bring a Microsoft teleservice center to town...and while the city and county decide it's OK to spend $25 million to build a baseball stadium for money-making professional teams...and while taxpayers spend $2.3 million a year so that Pima County Animal Control can take care of stray pets...

...It appears we've forgotten our stray humans.

Tucson officials have been unable to find a permanent place for a few dozen homeless folks who were occupying a temporary slum near A Mountain until the city closed the site at the behest of angry neighbors. Local social service agencies have worked hard to place the former A Mountain campers, but homeless advocates admit their efforts have accomplished little.

Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homeless people come through Tucson each year. And they have the same basic survival needs as the rest of us--food, shelter, clothing, health care and jobs.

Sure, it's easy to ignore them, easy to blame them for getting themselves into this situation. They're not very attractive, most smell bad and some are cons just looking for an easy buck. The most noticeable homeless are probably the seriously mentally ill and the drug- or alcohol-addicted blighting our street corners and panhandling for beer.

What we generally don't notice are the battered women seeking safe refuge outside their homes; the disabled veterans, many from the Vietnam era; the physically disabled, many in chronic pain; or the families who simply can't make enough money to afford a home. According to officials at Casa Maria Free Kitchen, three-fourths of the 1,000 meals they serve daily go to families.

Currently, the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless is helping write a $3-million grant to address these problems. The money would come from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Planning Council President Mary Pat Sullivan says it's a comprehensive plan that would provide housing, jobs, detoxification, long-term case management and clothing. Sullivan could not say what is currently spent on Tucson's homeless--she says the money goes mostly through agencies and the figures can't be easily broken out.

But Brian Flagg, Tucson's most vocal homeless advocate and the "leader" of the Casa Maria operation, complains of "poverty pimps" and social workers from local agencies who've set themselves up as the saviors of the homeless. Flagg emphatically says no more social service empires are needed, no more money need be filtered through agencies whose directors are making $50,000 annual salaries skimmed from the top of grants meant for the homeless. And Flagg says the homeless don't need to be "case managed."

In fact, he says, it's really very simple: Officials should try listening to the homeless. Flagg is in the process of surveying these people and, although all the results aren't in, he says he believes the survey will show that what the homeless need is--brace yourselves--somewhere to live, and jobs. Duh?

Image Flagg suggests small campsites scattered throughout Tucson and a city jobs program geared toward the homeless would be helpful.

But the NIMBYs probably wouldn't go for even small sites near their homes. And there has already been much too much hand-wringing over placing the homeless in our community.

There are workable solutions. The old Apache Drive-In has been closed for years. At 78 cents a foot for 17.63 acres, it's a steal of a deal. The site is surrounded by two business parks, a desert wash, and the Benson Highway. It has commercial zoning. Next door is the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Flagg says it's the kind of site the homeless are looking for. It's relatively close to town; it's close to Primavera, a shelter for homeless men; there's access to transportation; and Sheriff's deputies could easily cruise the grounds regularly.

Flagg says the local bureaucrats have complicated the process to the point of paralysis. And when it comes to handouts, the homeless can't compete with Bill Gates or professional Baseball. But surely we could provide our out-of-luck fellow human beings with what we as taxpayers already provide stray and abandoned pets--food, shelter, cooling in the summer, heat in the winter, treatment for the sick, and services to help reunite them with their families, or to find a home.

Turning an abandoned drive-in into a homeless camp would be the decent thing to do. TW

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