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Papago Park Cleanups Encourage Tempe To Tackle Homelessness

papago encampment
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Multiple sites around Papago Park contained remnants of camps during a January walkthrough.

Last spring, a few Tempe residents decided Papago Park needed to be cleaned up — badly. Photos show large piles of trash alongside the trails that crisscross the park, as well as items like mattresses and plastic bins.

But a cleanup wasn’t enough because the trash was mostly brought in by people setting up encampments in the park, so it kept reappearing and regenerating. The conditions at Papago eventually spurred a plan to tackle homelessness citywide.

Trash Along The Trails

Right on the heels of the new year, the group Friends of Papago Park led people on a walk through their namesake.

Planes traced a path in the sky overhead, while the paths on the ground snake through bushes, rocks and sometimes man-made items. It’s something Gerrit Mack has seen since last May.

“There was a huge spike in trash and from that point it seemed to just exponentially get worse every week,” he said.

Mack is part of a biking group that rides through here. He said they tried to clean up what they could but realized a spike in urban camping was the main cause.

“I’ve seen some camps out here that have been good about being clean and some camps that don’t care,” Mack said. “And when they stop caring, and they make trash my problem, that’s when I want to take action.”

So he did. He and some friends got the city of Tempe to take a look at the portion of Papago Park within their city limits. Councilman Kolby Granville was along for the walk, too.

“There were huge piles of trash we needed to take care of from a health and safety standpoint,” Granville said.

The city has cleaned up 40 tons of debris since June, at a cost of $35,000. But the idea of urban camping is not new to the city. Earlier in 2016, they heard a similar rallying cry to make a change, coming from businesses along Mill Avenue.

“There was a time a year ago where you could bring everything you own, put it on a sidewalk on Mill Avenue and sleep there 24/7,” Granville said.

Some downtown businesses complained, and the City Council made it illegal to sit or lie on Mill Avenue sidewalks during certain times. Granville said he thinks the Mill ordinance and the uptick in camping here are related.

A handful of other residents have joined on the walk, meant to highlight the areas still layered with water bottles, cardboard, even a shopping cart. But Linda Derringer doesn’t seem as frustrated with the mess as with what it symbolizes.

“It seems like it’s not human to let people live in the wild, you know, in the bushes,” she said, while walking along one trail. “We should be helping them, now that we know they’re here.”

A New Plan To End Homelessness

“The city of Tempe is determined to end homelessness,” said Nikki Ripley, communication director for the city.

She said that goal might sound idealistic, but it doesn’t mean that there will never be another homeless person in Tempe. It means there will be enough resources to deal with it when it does happen. And it means taking a different approach than just enforcement.

“Homelessness is not a criminal activity,” Ripley said. “That’s part of what we mean when we talk about approaching the issue with compassion.”

The city dedicates more than $1 million of its annual budget to human services. But it’s set aside another $250,000 this year for a more targeted effort, which was presented to Tempe City Council last week. By July, the goal is to house 50 homeless people and provide services to 200 more. And for parkgoers:

“There are identified, dedicated cleanup dates that will continue to happen throughout 2017,” Ripley said.

Mack has moved past the idea of a few cleanups and wants to see the city’s plan succeed.

“We can’t fix the problem if we don’t start with the solution, and that’s getting people housing,” Mack said.  

And if that happens the issue of trash cleans up itself.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.