Protesters: Tempe sidewalk ban should be lifted

Posted at 6:16 PM, Apr 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-30 01:45:25-04

Dozens of protesters marched along Mill Avenue Friday night to protest the sidewalk sitting ban passed by the city council earlier this month.

"We're actually protesting against the criminalization of poverty and homelessness," said Charlotte Willenzik, the organizer of the protest. 

The issue is personal to Willenzik. She spent almost three years of her life on the streets in California, after family threw her out of the house. Willenzek says she would play her guitar to get money, and sit wherever she could find a place.  

"We just think it's everyone's right to sit on the sidewalk. We don't think that just because businesses pay the most taxes and have the most money, that they have the right to go to city council and basically make up the laws," said Willenzik.

She added that she knows how it feels to be told to move over and over again by business owners who do not want her there.

"It's embarrassing. You feel like you're less than a human being. People just want to push you out of the way and just act like you don't exist," said Willenzik.

During Friday night’s march, some customers along Mill Avenue yelled at the protesters to get a job.

A bartender, who spoke anonymously, said panhandlers who ask for money sometimes harass customers and annoy employees by leaving behind trash. 

Tempe Councilman Kolby Granville, who voted in support of this urban camping ban along Mill Avenue, said he did so after hearing from dozens of businesses who said it was driving their customers away.

"There's foot traffic on Mill Avenue, and foot traffic equals panhandling. We're not saying you can't do it. We're saying find a bench of which there are dozens, or just don't sit in the downtown area, go somewhere else where you can sit all day, or come back after business hours," said Granville.

Shawn Erickson, who represents many local businesses has gathered signatures from almost every business along Mill Avenue who want this ban to be in place.

"Some people don't want to be bombarded with the panhandling all the time, we've had complaints of them leaving trash, that sort of thing," said Erickson.

Despite the ban, Erickson said the business community did want to support the homeless.

A group of businesses has joined the Downtown Tempe Authority and pledge to raise at least $100,000 to donate to resources that would help the homeless along Mill Avenue.

"We want to start programs to help them, not put them in jail," said Erickson.

"We want to raise funds, we want to be able to get these people back on track in their life. Just letting them sit on the street and ask for money is not getting them anywhere because I see the same people, for years now, I see the same people out there," he added.

Jeffrey Monahan and Stacy Weatherford are two homeless campers ABC15 found lounging along Mill Avenue Friday.

Monaghan said he had heard about the ban taking effect on May 14.

"I think it's pretty stupid. They're so worried about people laying on the streets and sidewalks, they need to find a way to help them instead of saying they look, you’re fixing to be fined for it," said Monahan.

"If they want us off the street they need to find us a place to go," added Weatherford.

Tempe Councilwoman Laura Kuby is one of two who had voted against the ban.  She calls it a band aid solution that did not address the real problem.

"I believe we have a sign right here that says Tempe, inclusive city.  Homeless folks are our neighbors, just as the students that frequent Mill Avenue are," said Kuby.

She said that they would be introducing a "Housing First" initiative to city council next week, to see what they could do to help the homeless more.

"Fundamentally it's about needing public restrooms, it's about needing housing first, it's needing wrap around services," said Kuby.