St. Mary’s Alumna Gives Lecture on Homelessness in Arizona

Dr. M Trenna Solomon Valado, ’94, gave a talk entitled, “No Space to Exist: Homelessness in a Sanitized City,” concerning homelessness in Tucson, Arizona, and the ways in which homeless people cope with an increasingly hostile public environment.

Her talk was based on her own research, which focused on homeless people who live in public spaces. She interviewed 60 homeless people, 12 social service workers, and 8 law enforement officials.  She also selected a group of homeless people to act as research assistants, and paid each of them 20 dollars, and gave them disposable cameras to take pictures (she paid the homeless interviewees 10 dollars each).

Valado began her talk by detailing the history of the gentrification, and in her words, “sanitization” of Tucson that began in the 1960’s.  She spoke of the low-income housing, dinning, and temporary job opportunities that used to exist that had since been replaced with expensive neighborhoods and stores.

The gentrification of Tucson is mainly the work of neighborhood coalitions and organizations who want all of the homeless people off the street.  The fight against the homeless is so strong, that I 1999, Tucson was ranked as one of the meanest cities for homeless people to live in the U.S.

In Tucson they now have signs that say “no trespassing on city property,” they have dividers on their benches so that no one can lie down on them, and there is a half-hour limit for allowed time at the city bus station.

The city has also imposed strict regulations on garbage; many garbage cans have locks, and there are laws that say that once garbage has been put out on the street, it becomes the property of the city, so rummaging through it is illegal.  They have also fenced off the dried riverbeds and underpasses where the homeless used to camp.

Sophomore Lindsey Hunter who attended the lecture, was very surprised by the extent of the regulations, “most of the regulations that they’re trying to enforce against homeless people, fencing off areas, I found really bizarre.”

The social service buildings have also been dispersed around the city instead of being in a central location, so that the homeless people won’t congregate in a single area.

Although various measures have been taken in order to try to oust homeless people from any existing public space in the city, the homeless have responded by finding their own ways to privatize and re-appropriate elements of the public space.  “They’re very savy about property ownership – they use different characteristics of property ownership to their own benefit” explained Valado.

She discussed how some homeless people would spend time on Church property because they would be less likely to be kicked off, and about the fact that some homeless people made arrangement with private property owners who let them camp on their space overnight; in return, the homeless people would either clean up the area, or make sure that other people didn’t camp there as well.

Valado also explained the ways in which different people coped with their lives, citing alliances with other homeless friends, and the creation of a street family, a supportive social network that offered protection, psychological support, and in some cases information and money-sharing.  Many homeless people said that their street family treated them much better than their biological family ever did, and that they felt safer on the street.  First-year Maria Tolbert noted the importance of the fact that homlessness was “an improvement for some people.”

Valado contrasted the success of these support networks to social services.  She explained that many homeless people avoid social services entirely, in part due to the fact that the restrictions and regualations have become increasingly difficult.

Another problem comes from the fact homeless people can get felonies just by conducting their daily lives in Tucson, and once a person has a felony, they are automatically disqualified from all sorts of housing and job programs.

Although the legal system seems to be biased against the homeless, Valado said that the police themselves, had “a very nuanced understanding of homlessness.” Many of them wished that the laws would be changed.

For her part, Valado believes that “preventing people from trying to create a space for themselves in the urban landscape seems inhuman, [and] futile.”  She says that homeless people are just like everyone else. They are “trying to create mainstream ideas of home in their outdoor lives; they’re trying to create a sense of security, of ownership, of personalization, and of family.”

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