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Fight Against Urban Camping

Continues In Phoenix

Image by jamesfischer and used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.

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Group Of Downtown Phoenix Activists Are Continuing The Fight Against Urban Camping — Designed To Illegalize Homelessness — By Forming An Campaign To Get The Issue On The Ballot

By Charles Parke
Special for Modern Times Magazine

July 30, 2013 — In 2004, the Phoenix City Council passed ordinance 23-30 that made it officially illegal to be homeless in the state’s largest metropolitan area. Nearly nine years later, a new group has formed with the intent of putting a revocation of the ordinance before voters.

The group is called The Campaign to Legalize Urban Kamping (yes, organizers want it spelled that way) and their signature-gathering campaign has been underway for a few months.

Many of those pledging support are downtown activists, including several who were part of the Occupy movement. The urban camping law, although designed to combat homelessness, is also commonly used to arrest First Amendment protesters who decide to protest by way of a sit-in or similar means.

"We wish to abolish the camping ordinances as they pertain to sleeping in public parks, including overnight. We want to eliminate the experience of coming into conflict with enforcement by fine, or incarceration, for the act of sleeping in a park, at any time," according to the The Campaign to Legalize Urban Kamping Facebook page.

Having been deeply involved with Occupy Phoenix, I saw the vagueness of the law brought to its most far-reaching limits. It is through this ordinance that Phoenix Police slowly arrested more and more of us and broadcast our arrests through the media. Once police made arrests — for nothing more than closing one’s eyes — the public viewed us as criminals, or worse. The urban camping laws in Phoenix are so broad, it can be interpreted by police in a multitude of ways.

Read Phoenix city ordinance 23-30.

Urban camping includes making preparations common to eating and sleeping and can be as simple as setting down a piece of cardboard in public. Those witnessing police making arrests for urban camping often report, such arrestable crimes as handing someone a bottle of water, having a picnic, laying on your back in a park, closing your eyes even to meditate while sitting up in a park and possibly even having a backpack in park.

These vague rules allow a police officer to decide to arrest many every day people while they go about their daily activities. While aimed at the homeless, police have often used them on protestors and other ‘undesirables.’ Many have suggested this sort of vague power is used to prevent First Amendment rights such as free speech and public assembly.

But the Campaign to Legalize Urban Kamping and homeless activists have not forgotten the real target of the ordinance: the homeless. Why is it a crime to be homeless? Should it be a crime to sleep or have belongings with you?

Federal courts have struck down such laws if a city does not provide availability in shelters. And, while shelters are sometimes available, finding one with open beds may mean taking a bus around the city. In Jones v. City of Los Angeles and Pottinger v. City of Miami, two courts found it is “cruel and unusual punishment” (in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution) to cite or arrest someone for sleeping in public if they have no access to a private place to sleep.

Due to concerns about avoiding arrest, the ACLU provides a guide to help the homeless understand their rights in Phoenix.  It covers a number of laws like urban camping and the sit/site law as well as providing reference to the court decision making it illegal to arrest someone for sleeping when no shelter is available.  

One homeless man who wished to stay anonymous because he doesn't want people to know he has been on the streets said, "In the Phoenix area, there are enough places to go where homeless can get food, clothing, haircuts, etc. The problem for me was sleep deprivation. Some homeless people camp out in various places outside and are able to get plenty of sleep, but I never did this as I never knew where these people camped out. I just wanted a safe place to sleep, but I had to keep awake in public places since I was concerned the police would harass me. On weekday nights, I would hang out between midnight and 4:20 a.m. Then I would take the first train on the light rail to try to get some sleep. I would go from Tempe to Main/Sycamore, stay on the train, which would go to Montebello, stay on the train even more as it went eastbound again. Go early in the morning or when there is almost 24 hour service on weekend nights, and you will find people sleeping on the light rail. Also, I would try to get sleep during the day while on the bus. However, it is more difficult as the bus is not stable as the train. Sometimes, I would hit my head on the glass while I was sleeping. The I-HELP Shelter in Tempe is much more humane than CASS in Phoenix, but the lottery system which they use I consider immoral."

Do the residents of the Phoenix Metro really believe it should be a crime for people to be homeless?

If the The Campaign to Legalize Urban Kamping has its way, we may finally get to find out.

Charles Parke is an activist from Phoenix. He can be reached at
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