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Editorial: Busting the beggars on Fourth Avenue

Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 2, 1998
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Fourth Avenue is a Tucson landmark. Open air cafes and markedly non-corporate merchants combine to create an offbeat and enjoyable locale. But there is a problem.

The same pleasant surroundings that draw people down Fourth also attract a large community of the homeless - largely young people in their late teens and early twenties. As anyone who frequents Fourth Avenue knows, these young adults panhandle or "spang" quite aggressively. Despite the existence of a $20,000-a-year program that provides the young panhandlers with food, clothing and job training opportunities, Fourth Avenue business owners claim their aggressive begging has continued to frighten patrons away.

On Sept. 1, 1997, the conflict between panhandlers and the general public reached a dramatic climax when a patron of Caruso's Restaurant was beaten by homeless men for refusing to surrender his leftovers to them. As a consequence, City of Tucson Councilman Steve Leal has suggested a legislative program in which the city of Tucson would rent the sidewalks along Fourth for a dollar a year to local merchants, thereby making those areas "private" and therefore rendering panhandlers subject to trespassing laws.

It sounds like an easy solution - to quickly and cheaply grant police the authority to remove disruptive and aggressive beggars. Nonetheless, recent years have seen tough laws against the homeless community - other than the current proposal that would outlaw sitting or sleeping on Fourth between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Because problems persists, however, it may be that tough laws and enforcement are not the solution to the quandary faced by many Fourth Avenue merchants.

Also, privatizing public areas for a mere dollar trivializes the importance of public areas, and may serve to limit the street's traditional role as a locus for free speech and public demonstrations in the Tucson community. Similarly, the city seems to be passing responsibility for guaranteeing public safety to the Fourth Avenue merchants who would be responsible for alerting the police of trespassing violations. To quote Paul Gattone, an attorney with the Southern Arizona People's Law Center, "We cannot handle problems on Fourth Avenue by making it a Constitution-free zone." Suspending an area's public status for the convenience is a dangerous precedent.

Suggestions have ranged the spectrum, running from Primavera, a homeless advocacy group that seeks to establish a barter-based store to serve the needs of the displaced youth, to one homeless man who stated that for 10 percent of a merchant's profit, he would cease panhandling.

Considering the Tucson community's long-standing effort to provide food and shelter for the homeless, particularly the young homeless on Fourth, such selfishness suggests that programs aimed at assistance may not alleviate the problem.

Regardless, the privatization proposal just won't fly. A better design would maintain Fourth Avenue as a public thoroughfare, but allocate funds from the association of downtown merchants to pay for more off-duty police patrols. Similarly, if passersby themselves elect to no longer spare a dime for the panhandlers, they will move elsewhere.

Such an approach may seem merciless, but deprived of convenient handouts, the displaced youth would be forced to participate in the programs already established to assist them, most of which carry mandatory drug tests and curfews. By refusing to help those who are abusive and disruptive, the problems of Fourth Avenue merchants and passersby can be addressed without direct privatization.