Soft Policing: Tempe businesses change approach to homeless

Tom Boland (
Tue, 6 Apr 1999 01:21:48 -0700 (PDT)

Can anyone report on personal encounters with Downtown Tempe Community
efforts to police homeless people?

Are homeless people's civil liberties being protected in the
business-university district there?

Are homeless people getting enough help to find and keep income support,
living-wage jobs and affordable housing?

"Since 1997, Tempe has outlawed urban camping, aggressive panhandling and
sitting on sidewalks, all measures the homeless say are designed to keep
them from getting comfy downtown." -- from article below
FWD  Arizona Republic - April 5, 1999


     Tempe businesses change approach to problem

     By Melissa L. Jones

She's been ignored, yelled at and even called a Nazi by the people she's
trying to help.

But around Mill Avenue, tough love works for Rhonda Bass, ambassador to the
homeless in downtown Tempe.

Since October, Bass has been the face of a kinder, gently aggressive
Downtown Tempe Community, a group of business owners trying to change their
approach to the homeless who live on their doorsteps.

The 27-year-old's job: to walk the streets, talk to and, hopefully, help
downtown Tempe's street people.

She tells them they're welcome as long as they don't aggressively panhandle
or scare away the customers.

"Basically, prior to this program, we ignored them," said Bass, a DTC
employee for two years. "We're not ignoring it anymore."

So there she is, asking homeless people to refrain from cursing, littering,
brushing their teeth in restaurants and blocking sidewalks.

And, of course, she asks them whether they need phone numbers for shelters,
counseling or help landing a job.

Quite a change in a city that for years has treated the downtown homeless
like a shopper with bad credit.

Since 1997, Tempe has outlawed urban camping, aggressive panhandling and
sitting on sidewalks, all measures the homeless say are designed to keep
them from getting comfy downtown.

For Tempe, Bass' ambassador program is a change in policy.

"That's pretty proactive," said Tempe police Sgt. Dave Humble. "Before, it
was to just try and chase them away."

Although the business community's motive is not entirely altruistic, Bass
said her work appears to be doing some good.

One morning, she intercepts a homeless man before his first drink and walks
him to a free shower at a church on University Drive.

At the showers, Bass tells a middle-age woman without identification to go
to the Salvation Army across the street for help.

On her way back to Mill Avenue, Bass helps a Tempe customer put money in
the parking meter.

By afternoon, Bass is standing outside the Coffee Plantation talking to
some of the homeless youths who spend hours at the outdoor cafe.

She lends 20-something Ollie Gatz her cellular phone to seek medical help
for the marks on his skin, which Gatz says originated from a ditch he slept
in near Tucson.

Bass also hands out her personal business card and a second that reads,
"We'll give you a hand, not a handout." The card lists agencies where
homeless can get help in getting off the streets.

Bass is one way the city, which spent millions in government dollars to
convert this once-decrepit strip of abandoned stores and biker bars into a
row of trendy pizzerias, brew pubs, art galleries and boutiques, can keep
the homeless from scaring off customers.

The DTC collected $30,000 in business donations for materials and a salary
for Bass, who divides her time between the streets and DTC's downtown
office, where she previously helped promote Mill Avenue tourism.

After this year, the ambassador job will be funded through businesses'
assessments, which range from $8 to $5,000 each year, depending on the

"I think it has really changed the civility of the street," said Rod
Keeling, DTC executive director. "It tells them they're welcome, but they
have to behave themselves."

That doesn't always happen.

One teenager recently called Bass a Nazi from across the street. On their
next meeting, however, Bass got him to apologize.

Others only pout when she empties cups of wine being sipped on the street.

She carries her phone and radio for protection.

"I think the only reason I don't get harassed is because I'm out there as
much as they are," Bass said.

Business owners tell her about the latest dine-and-dash - a homeless person
who ate without paying - or who might be blocking the entrance to a shop.

"I always thought the city should do something about it," said Mike
Jennings, co-owner of two Campus Corner shops. "As far as I know, the city
has no plans to do anything about it, so it's good that we do it."

Bass estimates that 25 to 30 homeless, most runaway teenagers and young
adults, live in downtown Tempe. The homeless, often high on drugs or
alcohol, spend their days drifting between the Salt River bottom and
Arizona State University.

The closest thing to a home for many of them is the sidewalk in front of
the Coffee Plantation, which did not donate to the fund.

"We donate our tables (all day, every day) to these guys," manager Rich
Sidoti said. "We give enough just by not kicking them out of our restrooms
and not constantly kicking them out of our courtyard."

Both supporters and the homeless said it's too early to decide whether the
program is working.

For Tempe businesses, out of sight may be enough.

For Bass, however, just hiding the homeless isn't enough.

"I just keep asking and asking and asking and hope that one day they'll
say, 'Yeah, man, take me home.' Or, 'I want to go to detox,' " Bass said.
"A lot of people we encounter don't want anything you offer them, no matter
how hard you try."


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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