Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mean streets of Flagstaff

By Gillian Ferris Kohl

Flagstaff, AZ – The first real snow of the winter is falling outside the Flagstaff Family Food Center. A man who simply calls himself, Davis, hunkers in next to the building and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes down to his fingertips. Davis says he knows snow makes a lot of people happy, but to him and his friends, it only brings worry.

1/1:35 it's too cold now 1/ 4:28 I don't know where they're gonna be sleeping at now

Davis is in his late forties and is a native Arizonan. He worked for Union Pacific Railroad for fifteen years. But, Davis says a series of bad luck and bad choices forced him to live on the streets.

1/1:19 I got problems with my family my wife, my kids I got restraining order from her, that's why I'm over here now, two years now, two years on the street now

Davis isn't alone on the streets. In fact, Coconino County Community Services estimates nearly a thousand people are homeless in the Flagstaff community. There are no city-run shelters and only a handful of independently run shelters and food centers. The Flagstaff City Council also recently passed an ordinance banning people from sleeping in cars on city streets. This is likely what landed Flagstaff on The Meanest Cities in America List issued this month by the National Coalition for the Homeless. So says Flagstaff's City Councilman and Vice Mayor, Al White, who opposed the ordinance.

1/1:55 there are so many people in America that are one paycheck away from being homeless, and my concern was when those people are forced into the streets that this ordinance didn't afford them any protections

White says the ordinance was aimed at protecting the public by focusing on a core group of repeat indigent offenders, well known to law enforcement for substance abuse and mental illness.

my problem with the ordinance as it was presented is that it didn't discriminate between those folks and people who are homeless for legitimate reasons, domestic problems, loss of work, those kinds of things

In fact, many of the nation's homeless fall into this category. That's according to Louisa Stark, founding president of The National Coalition for the Homeless, the organization that puts out the annual meanest cities list.

1/17:45 a fair amount of homeless families become homeless because of an illness because of incredible bills which they feel incumbent to try to deal with

Stark has worked with thousands of indigent people across the country. She says they often report feeling invisible or forgotten by the more fortunate around them. That's one of the factors the Coalition bases its annual list on, which, along with Flagstaff, included much larger cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco.

1/32:25 I think the National Coalition felt somewhat strongly about communities, or towns, or cities that were in denial they say either we don't have homeless people or it's not our issue, it's not our responsibility to deal with them 1/12:00 I think there's a tendency on the part of our cities to blame the homeless for their situation

Stark says cities need to show political will in dealing with homelessness and also work on its root causes such as affordable housing, mental illness and substance abuse. Flagstaff City Councilman, Al White, says the council plans to discuss these exact issues in the near future. He says he would like to see Flagstaff ranked as one of the nicest cities for the treatment of indigent people. But the National Coalition for the Homeless does not currently compile such a list.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.