By EMILY ELLIS
Arizona Sonora News
(Emily Ellis is a reporter for El Independiente)
Rain begins to fall over Santa Rita Park as Gary Martinez, 58, limps over to where he has spread his freshly washed clothes on the scrubby grass. His wife, 63, pushes a laden shopping cart toward the shelter of the bleachers by the baseball field. A blue sleeping bag tumbles from the cart. She bends to pick it up, wincing. Martinez, arms full of damp laundry, shouts at her to leave it.
“My lady has a bad back,” he explains later. “I gotta watch out for her, make sure she doesn’t hurt herself.”
Ever since they failed to pay the rent for their south side apartment five years ago, the Martinezes, both of whom are disabled, spend their days at Santa Rita. The expansive park, located alongside East 22nd Street, houses two baseball fields and a skate park in the midst of grass. It is not uncommon to see families gathered to watch baseball games on the weekends; nor is it uncommon to see people in soiled clothes pacing and muttering beneath the thick ponderosa pines.
For some, Santa Rita is a beautiful place that they cannot fully enjoy because of the dozens of homeless people who flock to it daily. Tammy Norris, a Tucson resident who came to the park for the first time on a recent Saturday to watch a baseball game, says she will never return.
“This is not a safe place for kids,” Norris says frankly. “If I had known how many [homeless people] were here, I would not have brought my daughters.”
Crime at the Santa Rita Park is a legitimate concern, with over 50 cases of assault, theft, and vandalism reported in August and September 2016, according to a report from spotcrime.com. Most involved one homeless person against another.
However, in a city where homelessness is a chronic issue and shelters have limited capacities, Santa Rita is one of the few options available for people searching for a place to lay their heads.
For Joseph Whitaker, the park is the closest thing to a home he can find.
“[The cops] kick me out, but I keep coming back,” Whitaker says, motioning towards the stone picnic table where he usually camps. It is illegal to be in the park after 10 p.m., but Whitaker says he usually risks it. He likes Santa Rita due to its proximity to Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission and the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen.
“I never bother nobody,” Whitaker says. He has been homeless for 15 years. A pale scar runs across his shaved head, evidence of the trouble he experienced during a stint in prison. “Most of us here, we just want a safe haven, like everyone else. ”
Amos H. Jung, pastor at The Loving Church on East Roger Road, has been doing his part to make Santa Rita seem a little more like a haven. Six days a week, he loads his van with coffee and donuts and drives over to the southeast corner of the park, where most of homeless people gather.
“Some people think we shouldn’t encourage them,” says Jung, who started the breakfast program four years ago. “But it is our duty to care for the poor.”
“It’s the riffraff that come and make us look bad,” Whitaker adds, cradling his Styrofoam cup of coffee. “We try to keep them out though, keep the park safe.”
There are legitimate reasons for concern about the safety of Santa Rita Park. Two homicides occurred there in the past sixteen months, including a homeless man who was stabbed in May. It is enough to make some community members think twice about using the park amenities.
“I’ve never seen a cop here, never,” Roy Busby says flatly. He is a little league coach who has been coming to Santa Rita for more than 20 years. “We come here for games, but as soon as it starts getting dark and they [the homeless] start moving in, we’re out. It’d be nice stay after a game and have a barbecue, but that’s just not fun at a place like this.”
Tucson Police Department officer Thomas Gonzalez, who spent the first 10 years of his career patrolling the south side, says he understands why the homeless in Santa Rita Park make community members uneasy.
“Neighbors have an expectation to enjoy the park without encountering problems like mentally unstable people and substance abuse,” he says. “It’s not pretty, but it’s important to understand, many of these people end up [homeless] through no fault of their own. To them, the park is one of the nicest places they can find. These people can easily be victimized as well, and that’s why you start receiving reports of assaults and things like that.”
Gonzalez admits that the high number of calls the TPD receives keeps officers from regularly patrolling Santa Rita.
“I just feel bad – I wish there was an easy answer,” he says. “It kills me to see people that need care and don’t get it.”
Homelessness is a nation-wide problem, but it is particularly glaring in Arizona, where more than 21 percent of families live below the federal poverty level, compared to the nationwide average of 14.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“[Homelessness] is a really complex issue,” says Peggy Hutchinson, CEO of Primavera, a foundation that provides affordable housing for Tucson’s homeless. “The people you see on the streets, they might be homeless because they can’t afford their medication, or because they lost their pension. They might be between houses, or on a waitlist for a shelter. They might be working, but still can’t afford housing. In this country, it can happen to anyone.”
According to Hutchinson, the limited capacities of shelters and low-cost housing is the main reason why people pass their days in public places like Santa Rita Park. Although there are many shelters in Tucson, most of them have a 90-day limit, in addition to regulations designed to protect both staff and occupants, according to Pima County’s Plan to End Homelessness. Housing preference is usually given to “high-risk” demographics, including families, women, and elderly people.
The frustration that results from wading through red tape in an effort to secure housing is another reason why people avoid shelters, Hutchinson says.
“These are people who have experienced a lot of stress and violence in their lives,” she sighs. “When you’re already fragile, and are being told to call and come back again and again . . . many people stop trying.”
When they first became homeless, the Martinezes tried to stay in shelters and even motels, but none would allow them with their two pit bull-type dogs. Having grown tired of being put on endless waitlists and filling out countless forms, only to be turned away, they feel that Santa Rita Park offers them more freedom.
“We’re getting old, is the thing,” Martinez says. “It’s more dangerous [to be homeless] when you’re old. Someday I’d like to go out to Benson, try to get a cheap trailer. It’s a long way though.”
His wife, who is still sitting with their shopping cart under the bleachers, waves at him. Martinez stands up immediately. “Excuse me, mija, I gotta go.”
The rain has stopped, and the wet grass glitters under the emerging sun. Baseball players jog back onto the field, while the homeless folks move out from under the shelter of trees and picnic tables, shaking water off their belongings.
The crack of a bat echoes through the park, and Martinez motions excitedly for his wife to look at the field. Taking her gently by the arm, he leads her out to watch the game.