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‘Safe Legal Sleep’: Project offers temporary shelter to the homeless

Tents are set for the night in the Safe Legal Sleep project in the parking lot of the Coalition for Compassion and Justice Thrift Store on Fair Street Tuesday.
Photo by Les Stukenberg.

Tents are set for the night in the Safe Legal Sleep project in the parking lot of the Coalition for Compassion and Justice Thrift Store on Fair Street Tuesday.

PRESCOTT – A late afternoon rainstorm did not deter more than 50 men and women of varying ages from setting up tents and sleeping bags outside the Coalition for Compassion and Justice’s Thrift Store on Fair Street Monday night, Aug. 22.

The soggy ground isn’t ideal, but these folks much prefer the damp to a daily desperate search for a place to sleep that will not expose them to a $185 public camping ticket or the indignities and dangers that come with chronic homelessness.

“Any place is better than no place,” said 65-year-old Louis Lumpkin who has been homeless in Prescott for about three years.

Lumpkin is one of CCJ’s homeless clients now participating in the nonprofit, anti-poverty agency’s latest project: “Safe Legal Sleep.”

Like some of his fellow homeless comrades, Louis admits he wrestles with sobriety and living on the fringe. Yet he welcomes the chance to be somewhere safe with non-judgmental, caring individuals who simply want to reach out a hand to their less fortunate brethren. He is even willing to follow the no-alcohol rules if it means he can get a safe night’s sleep without disturbance.

“As long as we can have a place where we can come and be at peace, we can be at peace. Otherwise it can be dangerous,” Louis said.

After six months of brainstorming with their homeless clientele on how to better assist them given limited shelter spaces and a lack of affordable housing, CCJ and some other nonprofits and faith organizations came up with the idea of using private property space for temporary shelter. The city ordinances have no prohibition against it, and CCJ was willing to donate its thrift store space for such a purpose.

Still in its infancy, this project aims to give homeless individuals a safe, legal place where they can set up tents or tarps and sleeping bags either just outside the thrift store doors or in the backyard behind a small house on the property. CCJ has provided two portable toilets for the clients. One of CCJ’s clients-turned-staff member, Peter Graver, is the on-site manager of what is designed to be a self-governing program.

“This is a reaction. The real answer is to get as many of these people as we can into supportive housing,” Graver said.

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At 6:30 p.m., the homeless arrive at the thrift store to set up camp for the night. They are required to leave by 6:30 a.m. the next day.

CCJ has established a voucher and check-in procedure; the vouchers are available on Tuesday and Fridays to clients at CCJ’s Open Door food program that operates out of their space at the Prescott United Methodist Church on West Gurley Street. A self-governing program, CCJ Executive Director Paul Mitchell said there are a few basic rules all “safe sleepers” must follow: no alcohol or drugs, no fighting and respect for each person’s space and property, as well as consideration for their residential and commercial neighbors

On Monday, the number of homeless swelled to just over 50 individuals. Mitchell said the cap is to be 45.

At 7 p.m., the night’s clientele gather for a moment of silence, a welcome and recitation of on-site rules.

On this night, Mitchell and a five-member group of clients try to gain consensus about how to avoid a few problems that have arisen with people who have violated the no-drinking rules. A couple suggest a property search for all comers; that idea meets with loud resistance. A couple others suggest a breathalyzer device for anyone suspected of intoxication. That leads to more grumbling. The meeting closes with no formal decision, but with a clear understanding individual behavior will be the predominant determination of whether someone is allowed to stay.

“We’ve been given a privilege,” said Chris Taylor, 52. “Do we want to be part of the solution or be part of the problem? We’re not saying you can’t drink. We’re saying you can’t do it here.”

Homeless advocate Daniel Mattson said this is clearly a work in progress, and like anything new is experiencing some “growing pains.” Like Graver, though, Mattson said he sees this as a step toward offering a safe haven for this city’s homeless until they are able to be transitioned into permanent shelter options. Several nonprofit agencies are working with some of these clients to find them affordable, permanent housing; Mitchell said three people have obtained work now that they are not spending their days hunting for a place to sleep at night.

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Not everyone welcomes what some have referred to as Prescott’s “tent city.”

CCJ’s property is located in a mixed zone of businesses, multi-family housing, some single-family homes and the former Miller Valley Elementary School – the Yavapai County offices are across the street and the Fry’s grocery store is on the down the road on the northeast corner with a mix of other stores, restaurants and office buildings in between.

One neighbor, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said he is aghast this could be allowed. He suggested CCJ’s “compassion” to the homeless has not extended to their neighbors.

“I just don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it was kind thing for them to do,” the neighbor said.

Prescott Police Deputy Chief Amy Bonney said the department has fielded questions about the operation, “and we’re working with them (CCJ) to work through situations.”

“We certainly want people to be safe … and we’ll do our best to facilitate communications between all the groups,” Bonney said.

Mitchell said he, too, has fielded his share of questions and concerns. He assures this project is not a violation of any city codes, and no clients have been unruly or posed a threat to anyone. A few have gotten louder than they should, and other “safe sleepers” have addressed that conduct immediately. The rules require by 9 p.m. there is quiet on the premises: no radios, no loud conversation or illumination, Mitchell said.

Mitchell is the first to admit all these individuals have their own issues, some including substance abuse problems. CCJ’s role is not to judge, but rather offer safe shelter as long as their on-site behavior is appropriate, he said. Since they opened about a month ago, Mitchell said they have had no need to call police.

“We live in a gray area, and we try and live together in a responsible and respective manner,” Mitchell said. “People might think it’s folly … But we are working together to maintain respect, and when we fall down, we have to have consequences but we also have to have compassion.”

“The majority of our neighbors recognize that everybody needs a place to sleep. If we can keep it respectful, and supportive within ourselves, we’ll prove to the neighbors that we’re not threatening. We’re just people.”

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