Fourteen days. Seven calls. One man. Since the beginning of September, the Safford Police Department has been called repeatedly by local residents who keep encountering a man described as erratic, extremely intoxicated and occasionally aggressive.
Officers have cited the homeless man, who is in his 60s, twice for drinking in Firth Park, had paramedics check him out and even booked him into jail for misdemeanor assault. But still, the calls keep coming.
During the same time period, SPD received two calls in four days about a homeless woman. Arizona Adult Protective Services put her up at a motel for a few days but she rebuffed other living arrangements because she can’t take her dogs with her. The woman, who uses a walker and is on oxygen, has also been spending her days at Firth Park.
Police Chief Glen Orr is well aware of the homelessness issue because the city has been dealing with the problem for years.
Safford is caught in a difficult situation, he said. The city is better off than a lot of communities that have dozens of homeless people, but the numbers are too low to warrant the cost of a full-service homeless shelter or a mental health facility. Many homeless, he said, have a mental illness and/or substance abuse issue.
“We’re not dealing with 50 to 100 homeless people; we usually only have one or two at a time,” Orr said. “They usually tend to move on or a family member will convince them to come with them and then we’re good until the next one comes along.”
There is some hope on the horizon.
Graham County will be using American Rescue Plan Act funding to build a $250,000 homeless respite center, a place for destitute people to get out of the sun and heat during the day, wash up and get referrals to other services available to them in the area.
Vaughn Grant, a member of the Gila Valley Ministerial Alliance, said the organization has a couple of sites in mind and is in the process of scheduling a work session with the City of Safford to discuss them.
“We’ve got some ideas we want to present to the council and we want to do it at a work session so we have a little more freedom to have a discussion before going to an actual town council meeting,” Grant said.
Having a respite center will give the alliance a better way to get to know exactly how many homeless people are in the area and what their needs are, Grant said. It will be a place for police, churches and other organizations to direct people.
“We want these people to know what’s available to them so they can improve their lives and ultimately get them out of their situation,” he said.
During interviews in April, Grant estimated there to be around 15 to 30 people experiencing homelessness county-wide, while Graham County Supervisor Paul David estimated 30 to 70.
Until help arrives, Orr’s officers will just continue to do what they can to help, he said. Residents need to keep in mind, however, that there is only so much officers can do under the law.
“It’s got to be a criminal issue for us to get involved,” Orr said, adding that his officers do not actively seek out homeless.
For example, officers get called regularly for people being drunk in Firth Park, but it’s not illegal for someone to become intoxicated prior to their arrival at the park. Officers would have to catch someone in the act of drinking to cite them, he explained.
Firth Park is also a public place, so it’s not illegal for the homeless to congregate there, unless it’s after 10 p.m, Orr said.
Every year his officers attend whatever classes become available on how to handle people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues so they’re up on the latest case laws, Orr said.
While Safford does have other parks, Orr said he believes Firth Park is a favorite because of its proximity to the highway and the convenience store across the street.
Orr admits the situation is frustrating, not because of the people who are struggling, but because of the system and lack of resources to help them.
“The majority of the time they’re very polite and nice. They’re easy to deal with,” Orr said. “A number of times officers have gone out of their way to find food for them and warm clothes for them to wear and they’re always really appreciative of that.”