If you go
What: Surprise City Council meeting
Where: City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza, Surprise
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 19
By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
Following a contentious public forum last week, city leaders will soon consider adopting a new law to address community concerns over homeless people living in and around some public parks.
After nine months of discussion at community meetings and City Council work sessions, Surprise Human Services & Community Vitality Department Director Seth Dyson presented a first draft of the proposed anti-urban camping ordinance to city leaders last month (“Leaders consider homeless law; Draft ordinance aims to prevent urban camping in Surprise,” Surprise Today, May 23, 2018).
In advance of action on the new law, city officials invited the public to participate in a June 6 public outreach meeting attended by more than a dozen area residents at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza.
If adopted, the ordinance would make camping on public (and some private) property without a permit a misdemeanor crime. Violators could be given the option of being arrested and charged – or accept transportation to a shelter facility in Phoenix or Mesa potentially, Mr. Dyson explained.
“It’s not our intent to make criminals out of anyone experiencing homelessness,” Mr. Dyson said. “Our intent is to get them connected to services. But some may refuse, for a variety of reasons.”
Sun City West resident Catherine Lowery attended the meeting and said she has followed the story closely, having frequently seen the homeless people living around vacant state-owned land along Bell Road.
Ms. Lowery said she recently spoke to some of the people staying at Bicentennial Park, 16705 N. Nash St., and she is concerned the new law only addresses the desires of local homeowners to clear the area, without enough consideration for the needs of those living on the streets.
“I think this ordinance criminalizes being poor. It’s very upsetting to me.” Ms. Lowery said. “I went down there yesterday and I talked to all of those people that are homeless down there, and several of them said they don’t want to move from this area because they have family here or they have children here.”
Mr. Dyson concurred, saying regular interactions between his department staff and those living on the streets around the Original Town Site have revealed the same narrative – that many prefer to remain in Surprise, even though most services are not available to them in the area.
Surprise Police Chief Terry Young said his officers have heard the same response in their dealings with area homeless persons.
“It’s accurate to say, a majority of those we interact with on a fairly routine basis, when they’re offered resources or services someplace else, often they’re not interested,” Mr. Young said. “I know some of them have said the reason they don’t want to go to those resources is because they’re further away and they don’t want to go that far away.”
The new ordinance sets a 50-mile radius for potential transport locations, which encompasses many regional service options in Phoenix or as far away as Mesa.
While the city of Surprise offers a variety of services aimed at preventing homelessness – such as temporary utility and rent assistance for residents in crisis – services for those already homeless are not typically provided in the West Valley.
At a Feb. 6 council meeting, Mayor Sharon Wolcott suggested West Valley leaders should work together to deal with the issue and avoid pushing homeless people into neighboring communities.
“I think there might very well be a regional approach that serves us all rather than chasing one to the next city and it just becomes kind of a vicious cycle. I’d really like to see us take that more regional approach,” Ms. Wolcott said.
But while area agencies – such as Lutheran Social Services, which is working to build an interfaith coalition to implement the successful iHelp model to provide temporary housing and wrap-around service for homeless people in the West Valley – struggle to find local solutions, the Surprise council will move forward with consideration and likely adoption of the new ordinance at its Tuesday, June 19 meeting at City Hall.
Asked to explain the urgency to move forward with the new law ahead of any attempt at a regional solution or, Ms. Wolcott did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.
Vice Mayor Ken Remley, who represents the homeowners in the OTS, requested the measure be added to the June 19 docket, though no additional public outreach meetings have been scheduled.
He said it’s time to do something about the problem, even if efforts to bring local services are not ready to implement, and it will be up to other West Valley municipalities to follow suit.
“This is just one phase of a multi-phased approach,” Mr. Remley said. “And part of it is going to be that the other cities also sign into the same types of programs as it goes. But somebody has to start it.”
District 1 Councilman Roland F. Winters Jr. also questioned the timing of the ordinance.
“I’m very conflicted about that code,” Mr. Winters said. “My big problem with the code is that were concerned with getting the homeless off the streets, but we have no place to put them. We’ve got 39 homeless people as of the last count. What are we going to do with them?”
Mr. Winters said that, though he is concerned with what the law will mean to area homeless people, he is confident Surprise police officers will treat them with care.
“The Surprise Police Department is not the Mesa Police Department,” Mr. Winters said, referring to recent scandals in the East Valley community. “Our cops are really compassionate. They want to keep the peace, but they’re also compassionate.”
Mr. Young echoed that assurance at last week’s public outreach, saying once the ordinance is adopted, police officers will work with those on the streets to explain the law and advocate for services before considering further action.
“We want to focus on education before enforcement,” Mr. Young said.