Empathy & compassion: Scottsdale grapples with the reality of macroeconomics

Panhandling in public spaces is not illegal; it is considered free speech, Scottsdale Attorney Bruce Washburn says. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

At busy Valley intersections motorists during their daily commutes can expect sunshine, radio chatter and, of course, to the chagrin of all, traffic.

But as population brims — Maricopa County was again last month named the fastest growing in the nation — real estate climbs in value and economic inequality continues to define the American Dream, the morning motorist is encountering a new image: The panhandler.

Elected leaders, residents and public safety officials all agree, “vagrancy,” which is a term coined in the early 20th Century to describe the downtrodden, has grown to epidemic proportions.

But the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights protect human beings from being criminally prosecuted due to his or her natural status or from expressing his or her First Amendment rights.

Standing on public property and respectfully asking for monetary donations is not illegal and the person participating in that activity is, under the rules of a democratic nation, entitled to be there.

But understanding why someone is there is a complex series of opinions short of an actual answer.

“I don’t want to talk to you. Sorry, I have nothing to say,” said a Caucasian man standing on the corner of Tatum and Shea boulevards holding a sign with the words, “Anything Helps” written on it.

“Because if I talk to you, then I’m not doing what I need to be doing,” the man angrily said when approached the morning of April 22. “Talking to you is a waste of my time. I am done talking to you. Do you understand?”

For many this can be a fearful experience, but Scottsdale City Manager Jim Thompson says no matter the circumstance a person finds themselves in, empathy and compassion ought to trump all.

“As far as people, there are limited rules that you can put in place. And for us, the issue is not prevalent and we are fortunate in that sense,” he said at City Hall in early April when talking with the Independent.

Scottsdale City Manager Jim Thompson

“If you are really looking to help, the best way is to help the organizations that engage with those individuals who can find them help.”

Mr. Thompson believes the sense of humanity we all share makes it difficult to simply pass them by without wanting to help in some way.

“We all have to treat them with compassion — the will of that is in all of us,” he said of his perspective. “I was raised in that kind of a compassionate environment. That’s just how I was raised. My dad was a police officer and my mom, a teacher.”

Many of those trying to eke out a living standing on the street corner are survivors — or victims — of the Great Recession. Not since the nation’s last economic upheaval — The Great Depression — have so many been left with so little.

“People, everybody one way or another, are just trying to survive,” Mr. Thompson explained. “For some it is about a meal, and for others it is about accumulating more. It is a really hard one. Sadly, it isn’t going away. These issues and these people are everywhere — in every community — it is a national epidemic.”

But despite his mindset, Mr. Thompson is the top municipal officer in Scottsdale and the city has been receiving complaints about aggressive panhandlers throughout the community.

“How do we help them? I really don’t know. They are people; that was a lesson for me early on,” he said. One thing he is sure of, however, is that handing them cash through the car window is likely not helping.

“When you do that, they will come back because they are getting what they came for — and that is oftentimes survival. They are people and that is where the compassion comes in.”

The Vista Del Camino Community Center acts as a social services hub helping residents in crises every day. (File photo)

The letter of the law

At the behest of Scottsdale City Council, City Attorney Bruce Washburn, in late March, offered insights to the issue growing in stature at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

“A lot of times people in crisis will have substance issues, addiction issues and even mental health disorders,” he said during the public hearing.

“Panhandling and homelessness are areas of constitutional law that is always evolving. It is necessary to keep an eye on the evolving legal landscape. And, the perspective of what you can and cannot do.”

According to Mr. Washburn, panhandling and the state of homelessness — or mental distress — is not a punishable offense.

“There are two different constitutional amendments we are dealing with in the Bill of Rights. One, is the First Amendment — the protection of free speech that primarily impacts the panhandling aspect of it,” he explained.

Scottsdale City Attorney Bruce Washburn, who oversees the legal proceedings of the West’s Most Western Town. (File photo)

“Then there is the Eighth Amendment — prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which speaks to what can and cannot be done regarding homelessness. The courts have made it quite clear for quite some time now — that begging, panhandling or whatever you want to call it — is protected speech. It is not commercial speech. It gets the same protection as political speech.”

Mr. Washburn went on to explain the constitutional protections extended to all Americans.

“The panhandling we are dealing with is occurring in public places. This is where we believe citizens will go to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech,” he said noting the legality of regulating human status.

“People can’t be arrested for what are called, ‘status offenses.’ You cannot punish people for having a certain status. You can make the possession of heroine illegal, but you can’t make it illegal to be addicted to heroine because of the status. The court basically said you can’t make it a crime to not have a job and a place to be.”

For Scottsdale residents experiencing poverty, Mr. Washburn contends without a place to go any legal action against those individuals would be deemed, “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“If there are people who can’t find somewhere else to go, then it is cruel and unusual punishment to arrest them for that,” he said pointing out under Arizona Revised Statute 13-2914 Arizona does have a panhandling statute, which speaks to aggressive behavior.

“If you are in a public place you cannot solicit in a way that causes fear of bodily harm,” he said.”This hasn’t been legally tested. Maybe at some point it will, but as a state statute, it is enforceable in Scottsdale.”

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane says he would like to see a more concerted effort focused on aiding those in need within Scottsdale city limits. (File photo)

Outreach and demographics

Scottsdale Human Services Director Greg Bestgen says municipal outreach employees are continuing to see people living at the poverty line.

“It’s an issue we deal with every single day in all of our centers,” he said. “Maybe they need mental health. They probably need a face to listen to hear where they are coming from. We have seniors that come to our centers that they have lived long enough that they have exhausted all of their resources.”

About 9 percent, or just over 21,000 human beings, live below the poverty line in Scottsdale, which is defined as a gross annual income less than $21,954 for a family of four, according to the latest Census figures.

As of 2015, the population of Scottsdale is estimated at 234,495 — which has grown by 7,577 since 2010, Census figures show. In 2010 roughly 8 percent, or 18,759 people, of the population lived below the federal poverty line.

Scottsdale outreach officials at both the Vista Del Camino Community Center and Paiute Neighborhood Center in March 2018 told the Independent the amount of need is like a rising tide that doesn’t raise all ships.

In fiscal year 2016-17 Vista Del Camino provided emergency services to 3,248 human beings and fielded 34,522 requests for information and referral services. The Vista Del Camino Community Center, 7700 E. Roosevelt St., serves as an outreach hub that aids residents and provides services ranging from job search assistance and housing vouchers to emergency food boxes.

Outreach: Places like Vista Del Camino in south Scottsdale offer annual collections at the Vista meant for the Covering the Bases Back to School effort the puts vital school supplies of those in need. (File photo)

At the Paiute Neighborhood Center, 6535 E. Osborn Road, the dedicated staff of both outreach officials and volunteers seeks to provide a safe and diverse environment where Scottsdale neighbors can come together to create a spirit of community by providing social, recreational, cultural and educational programs and services.

In addition, the Scottsdale Housing Authority, which serves as a pass-through agency for federal Housing and Urban Development funds known commonly as Section 8, offers 735 housing vouchers on an annual basis.

Furthermore, housing officials explain, the city of Scottsdale offers a $978 housing voucher, which is 120% more than the federal guideline.
In addition to Vista and Piaute centers the city of Scottsdale offers:

  • Police crisis intervention specialists
  • A community assistance office
  • Scottsdale senior centers
  • Career services
  • Youth and family services

According to Mr. Bestgen, the No. 1 outreach effort the city of Scottsdale is missing: Affordable housing.

“We just like a little bit of a chance to provide affordable housing,” he said. “That would be one of the strategies to look for new development spaces for these individuals. Some have made an investment in this community and can’t afford to live here anymore.”

An empathetic approach

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane says he is not sure he is witnessing an organized approach to deal with the tenets of poverty and the impacts it has on Scottsdale society.

“I am concerned whether we have a strategy, from the humanitarian side and safety for our overall community,” he said of the bubbling vagrancy issue. “I think it is becoming an a big enough subject from a general public standpoint. I am running out (of) answers to citizens who are concerned about it. Part of what you have told me is an extension of what I have been telling them, which is we can’t do anything.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says she hopes a solution can be found — one that is compassionate to those in need and a practical approach the general public finds value in.

Scottsdale City Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield. (File photo)

“I just hope we can find a solution because if we don’t find a solution it will not get better,” she said. “It will get bad for the vagrants themselves — I wish more would reach out to the services the city has for them. There are a lot of people who are very, very upset.”

But Councilwoman Littlefield agrees an empathetic approach is likely the best one.

“I think people feel a great deal of sympathy for those who are experiencing homelessness and don’t have a place to be or who can’t care of their families,” she pointed out. “Part of this could be the result that most cities do not require affordable housing for their developments. But there are places that will take these folks and we have some here in Scottsdale. We don’t advertise that a lot in Scottsdale.”

That may be changing as Ms. Littlefield points out signage encouraging donations to municipal social services could emerge at local intersections.

“Help the organizations that have the facilities and the wherewithal to actually help these people,” she said. “If you want to help them and help the various food banks and they can help give you ideas on where you can go to help them.”

Ms. Littlefield contends that if left unmanaged, the situation could become dire.

“There is a safety, and health issue here,” she said pointing out unsanitary conditions in make-shift encampments found in most major communities throughout the Valley. “It can become a public health menace — it is a conversation we need to have.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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