Prescott changes attitude towards the homeless population

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

In the wake of Spring 2010’s controversial homeless raids and arrests, the city of Prescott launched a project to address vagrancy in the community. In collaboration with shelters and downtown businesses, city officials are working to inform homeless people about services while helping to increase respect for the population throughout the town.

Currently, the mayor’s office is launching a new project: to create a daily storage facility for the homeless to use.

“A lot of people camp out in the surrounding National Forest, spend the night there, then come into town to have breakfast, carrying all their things in a backpack,” said Joseph Brehm, Management Analyst at the City of Prescott. “Everything they own is literally on their backs and it is difficult to find work.”

The city is asking shelters to host such storage. Local AmeriCorps members  helping to organize the project are confident that there will be plenty of volunteers to build the facility because many homeless people are trained craftsmen.

“People say ‘let us build a shelter.’ They want to earn it, have the pride,” said Kent Kramer, an AmeriCorps member helping with the project.” This [storage facility] is a small-scale dry-run of that idea.”

This project is the most recent development following a long process of City Council and Prescott citizens working together to address issues concerning the homeless population.

Due to pressure from local businesses, the animosity towards homeless people took a sharp turn in April 2010, when the Prescott Police Department and the Sheriffís office arrested about 40 homeless people, recalled Gerry Garvey, director of the Coalition for Compassion and Justice (CCJ).

“They not only swept the downtown area but they went into the woods and arrested people and confiscated all their belongings, which was the real stress,” said Garvey.

Reaction from the community was immediate. Around 100 people flooded the council chambers, voicing concerns and debating solutions.

The downtown business community complained about people sleeping in doorways, urinating on the sidewalk and sleeping on benches, recalled Garvey.

The mayor called a meeting of all the human services that help the homeless.

Meanwhile, CCJ brainstormed with staff and the homeless people they serve and came up with a list of ideas on how to help the city.

According to Garvey, members of the homeless community said to the mayor, “We may be homeless, we may be living in poverty, but we’re a community. If you come to us and ask for help, because people are inappropriate downtown, we can help with that.” Homeless people understood the sources of the disturbances better than anybody, said Garvey. In an effort to find a realistic solution, they requested information about safe places and off-limit private properties.

The mayor responded by creating a “solutions committee.” Since then, the city, the business community and homeless advocacy groups have met every month to solve problems and coordinate their efforts.

To help the city, AmeriCorps offered two part-time volunteers to assist the mayor with this process, according to Brehm. The volunteers spoke with businesses, shelters and the homeless about their problems and needs. Based on these meetings, they created a pamphlet that informed people about free meals, medical assistance, employment and local laws. They encouraged business owners to pass along the information and emphasized that the majority of homeless do not cause any nuisance.

A handful of people downtown were disruptive, however, and even the homeless at the CCJ were afraid of going down there, Garvey remembered.

“Most of them werenít homeless, they were just mean drunks that hung around downtown,” said Garvey.

The business community said that the “homeless problem” has improved drastically, according to a recent survey. Garvey believes it has a lot to do with perceptions; homeless people have been given a human face and have been separated from the troublemakers.

The economic downturn has changed the face of people who need assistance. Today, CCJ provides help to well-dressed individuals with professions you would not normally expect to see at a shelter, such as teachers and social workers, explained Garvey.

“Many people sold or foreclosed their homes. They’re just regular folks and they’re losing $150,000 to $200,000,” said Bryan, chef at CCJ. “There are people standing next to you at Albertson’s spending their last money, but it’s Friday and their stomachs are rumbling and the kids are hungry.”

Garvey retold an incident that occurred on one of the recent snowy days — a business owner was concerned about two homeless men whom he had often seen outside his shop. He asked them where they would spend the night. They replied that they did not know. According to Garvey, he said, “I have a storage room in the back so I’m going to leave it unlocked and I want you to use it.”

People are very grateful for their help and often ask what they can do in return, explained Garvey.

“Sixty percent of people … get services five to six times and then they find work or get the help they need and we donít see them anymore. Twenty percent of them we do see again because they come back as volunteers,” said Garvey.

The solutions committee meetings have created a network between the local organizations serving the homeless, according to Kramer, who stayed after the projectís first phase ended. His position is now partially funded by the city of Prescott. Kramer said that the service providers are now familiar with certain perpetrators and can also redirect homeless people to appropriate areas if needed. Besides sharing information, they decide together how to approach a problem and learn from each other’s experiences.

The mayor’s office has funds for the rest of the year to continue working with the homeless and will reapply before the City council in 2012.

Garvey at CCJ thinks this pioneer project has been extremely successful.

“We’ve had no arrests since then. It’s been awesome.”

This article appeared in the April 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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