Pair of proposed bills would criminalize homelessness in Arizona

A pair of bills aimed at criminalizing common activities for people experiencing homelessness had their first hearings in the state Senate Wednesday, although their path to becoming law remains unclear. The bills would make it illegal to sit, lay down or sleep on sidewalks and in public rights-of-way, and to panhandle in certain areas. 

Senate Bill 1022, proposed by Fountain Hills Republican John Kavanagh, would prohibit anyone from selling goods, soliciting donations or begging on a traffic island or median or risk a misdemeanor upon the third offense with the possibility of up to six months in jail. Officers could issue a warning on the first offense and a traffic violation for the second. 

Kavanagh has tried to pass a similar bill before but faced opposition from both parties, and former Gov. Doug Ducey signed similar legislation by Kavanagh in 2015. 

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“This law is the wrong response,” attorney Lisa Bivens with Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice told the committee “This law makes it a crime to have needs and to peacefully ask for help. We all have needs and we all need help sometimes.. If we enact this law, we chase away people who may be in need…This law does not fix any problem, it does not promote any purpose.” 

Kavanagh argued before the committee that the bill is needed to improve public safety but committee member Rosanna Gabaldón, D-Sahuarita, asked him what information he had to showcase the dangers of soliciting donations, selling items or panhandling in traffic medians. 

“Driving around the city,” Kavanagh responded, adding that when he was performing “maintenance” on his campaign signs he often had to deal with people driving “really fast” in those areas. 

“I also get distracted when I’m driving when somebody is so close,” Kavanagh added. 

The Fountain Hills lawmaker also said that there are safer places for people to ask for money, like the sidewalk or in parks, which another one of his bills before the committee that afternoon addressed. 

Senate Bill 1024 would prohibit a person from lying, sleeping or sitting in a public street, highway, sidewalk or other right-of-way unless there is a medical emergency or if it is during a specially permitted event. 

Kavanagh said the language is similar to an ordinance in Phoenix which banned “urban sleeping,” however, the city has backed off on enforcing that ordinance after a Ninth District Court ruling found it was unconstitutional for cities to ticket people for camping or sleeping in public areas if there are fewer shelter beds than the number currently unhoused people. 

“Sidewalks are for walking. If you’re at a bus stop, use a bus stop bench,” Kavanagh said of his bill, “basically you’re not supposed to sit down at the sidewalk.” 

Marilyn Rodriguez, speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Arizona, said that because the bill mirrors Phoenix’s ordinance, it would not be enforceable if passed and would put municipalities around the state in danger of lawsuits. 

An “unforeseen consequence” was also pointed out during the committee hearing by Arizona Trucking Association member Tony Bradley. Bradley said that as the bill is written, it would criminalize sleeping in a vehicle at a rest stop, something truckers often do during long-hauls. 

“I am very seriously considering re-examining the sitting part of the bill,” Kavanagh said. 

The committee held both of his bills after committee chairman David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, added an amendment to the panhandling bill to exempt those who are selling goods.

“You have kids that are out there that do car washes and such so it is not prohibiting them from such circumstances,” Gowan said, explaining his amendment. 

Kavanagh said that Gowan’s amendment was applying the ban “unequally,” but  said he aims to bring the bills with amendments back to the floor. 

In January 2020, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the state was nearly 11,000 and by Dec. 2021, the number was  estimated to have increased by nearly 30%, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a housing crisis call *211 to reach the state housing crisis hotline or visit 211arizona.org

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