TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Downtown Tucson Partnership has embarked on a program to clear the homeless out of downtown and reclaim Jacome Park for its residents.
The park was home to a permanent encampment of nearly 80 homeless people which became a flash point for city leaders, especially with the annual Gem Show taking center stage from the end of January to the middle of February.
In the past, in order to clear downtown of homeless people and camps during the Gem Show, the city would use police to move them out to other locations. Following the two or three week hiatus, the homeless would return, making the park generally inhospitable to the general public.
"People did not feel comfortable in this space," said Kathleen Eriksen, CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership. "It was intimidating, it was dirty, there as crime."
But since last fall when the partnership, in conjunction with Old Pueblo Community Services, started a new program called "dtp connects" crime has dropped 93 percent, chronic homelessness by 73 percent and the homeless have disappeared from the park.
Under the program, they have teamed up to find permanent housing for 54 homeless since Nov. 1, 2017.
Rather than just chasing them out of downtown, the agencies find them a place to live and provide other services that they may need such as food stamps, health care, or even jobs.
On Tuesday, Feb. 6 the partnership started the second phase of its efforts to find homes for the homeless.
"The idea is to get as many homeless people as we can off the street," said Harold Harris, a seven-year veteran of the security staff at the Downtown Tucson Partnership. "You know, its been positive, it really has."
Harris and a worker from Old Pueblo Community Services spend three hours every Tuesday and Thursday trying to find those who are likely the chronically homeless, those with mental issues or drug and alcohol issues.
On the first day, in three hours, they found 10, of which five were offered and will receive help.
One of those who is still undecided is Alex, who has been on the street for seven years he says "because of mental issues."
"For sure," he said. "It's really humbling to be homeless."
He turned down a night in a shelter saying the problem with shelters is the next day he's back to square one.
"I would love to have a life, today, again," he said. "Whether it was a s***** life, pardon my French, whether it was good or not, I would do anything for it."
But Harris will continue to work on Alex and it appears may have some success.
He said "We get to know them, they get to know us and pretty soon we try to keep the peace."
"It's not like we're trying to push them away from downtown," Harris said. "We're just trying to get them inside."
And according to the partnership, it is having some success in Jocame Park.
"Some people don't want help and you can't force them to get help," Eriksen said. "But for those who want it, they're getting it."
But the question is, can the momentum be sustained after the Gem Show leaves and attention wanes from city leaders.
Eriksen says it's actually saving the city money because police and paramedics don't have to respond to the park three to five times a day for emergencies, frequently drug overdoses.
It's hoped the money saved can sustain the program long after the tents are down and the tourists and vendors have left town.
"It's never going to leave," she said. "It's the new norm."