At its Jan. 9 meeting, the Sedona City Council unanimously directed city staff to move ahead with planning for the creation of a homeless campground for local workers living in their cars at the Sedona Cultural Park, which the city purchased in November 2022 for more than $23 million.
“It’s a supplement to affordable housing,” city Housing Manager Shannon Boone told the council while presenting the staff proposal, describing the homeless campground as a “temporary solution to a complex problem.”
The homeless campground will initially include 40 parking spaces and may be expanded over time. “I don’t envision this site being full immediately,” Boone said. “If it fills up fast, we’ll grow the site.” These will be supplemented by portable showers and restrooms powered by a diesel generator.
Director of Public Works Kurt Harris explained that the graywater from the showers will be dumped at the site. “If you don’t contain it, it’s not a hazard” per Arizona Department of Environmental Quality rules, Harris said. “The trees’ll love it.”
“Even if it’s soapy?” Mayor Scott Jablow asked.
“It’s totally legal,” Harris said.
“I hadn’t thought of potable water,” Boone said in reply to a question from Councilwoman Jessica Williamson.
City sustainability manager Bryce Beck did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how the homeless campground’s dumping of water and use of approximately 19,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year will be compatible with the city’s sustainability plan and Climate Action Plan.
The proposed location for the homeless campground is the festival grounds area of the Cultural Park. The site will be run by the Verde Valley Homeless Coalition, which will provide an onsite manager.
Local workers using the campground will be required to leave with their vehicles during the day to prevent encampments “and other undesirable activities.” A maximum of two adults per vehicle will be allowed, and one occupant must be able to present proof of employment or school attendance in Sedona. Councilman Pete Furman suggested “co-opting employers” to get them to refer their employees to the homeless campground and possibly requiring an employer referral for admission. Entry will not be permitted after 10 p.m. except by prior arrangement, vehicles will not be allowed to leave after checking in and remote workers will not be permitted to use the campground.
The site rules would also prohibit:
- Tents or canopies
- Drugs, alcohol and smoking
- Congregating outside of vehicles
- Sleeping with the engine running
- Using headlights
Boone said the list of rules would be required “to maintain control of the site.” Housing coordinator Jeanne Frieder said that if any non-permitted substances or items are seen, the site manager will confiscate them.
VVHC executive director Rhonda Bishop said the area will be patrolled every two hours by the site manager. Individuals will be required to pack out their own trash, and if they leave trash behind, it will be traced to their site registration and they will be penalized for littering.
“People do have to be directed at times,” Bishop said. VVHC board member Chip Norton described their shelter in Cottonwood as “disciplined.”
To ensure user compliance, Harris proposed the use of motion sensor cameras to monitor the site “through Skynet.”
“I was excited by the idea of sensors that could perhaps alert police,” Williamson said.
City staff and site administrators will be trying to get site users to enroll in one of VVHC’s “service plans” to oblige them to commit to programs, requiring a 37-page application, and their housing outcomes will be monitored. Boone said the city aims to divert 50% of those car campers into permanent housing.
“The vehicular homeless are so high-functioning, they know how to stay hidden,” Boone commented. “They don’t want to be thought of as traditional homeless and they don’t have a lot of other needs that they particularly want to be filled, such as getting on an individual service plan.”
“We haven’t seen what your metrics are,” Councilman Pete Furman said to Boone. “I’m assuming that those aren’t in as good a shape yet, and if this moves forward from tonight, we give you some direction, that we’ll see those before this program gets fully kicked off?”
“That’s something we are still working on,” Boone replied. “Perhaps we won’t identify those benchmarks before the program is approved.”
“I would encourage you to make good progress on benchmarks before the program is approved,” Furman said.
Staff proposed that if a nightly rather than a monthly fee is charged, $2 per night would be appropriate.
“$2 a night seems kind of low,” Mayor Scott Jablow said. “Have other numbers been bounced around?”
Boone compared the suggested fee to the daily cost of a gym membership that someone who is homeless might purchase in order to shower.
The camp is estimated to cost $151,334 for startup costs and $434,015 in annual operating costs, the latter of which will be covered by a $875,638 two-year grant from the Arizona Department of Housing.
City Attorney Kurt Christianson stated that he does not expect the use of the site for a homeless campground to affect Sabrina Beram’s lawsuit against the city for refusing to grant her an exemption to its anti-camping ordinance. Christianson previously informed Beram that the city could not grant exemptions to the ordinance and that sleeping in a car was unsafe.
Jablow and Councilman Brian Fultz referred to the campground as a “great start” on providing housing solutions, while Williamson said it was “targeting the right group” and that including the traditional homeless would be “disastrous.”
“There’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program,” Furman remarked. “Maybe this has a role in the Cultural Park,” adding that it would be difficult to kill the program once started.
“Not every parent chooses for their children to live the way we think they should be living,” Councilwoman Melissa Dunn said. “That could be our prejudicial view.”
Thirteen members of the public spoke in support of the proposed homeless campground, while several called attention to nuances overlooked in the proposal.
“You can do 14 days in the national forest,” said Aaron Ingrao, speaking on current parking limitations. “When I first got here, I thought that maybe I could rent a spot from someone’s house that I knew. Turns out that was illegal. Thought maybe I could park at work. Turns out that’s illegal. One way or the other, every single night I’m in town, I’m breaking the law.”
“This proposal actually is a proposal we have been sending to the city for about four years now,” Sedona Area Homeless Alliances chairwoman Laurie Moore said, but expressed reservations with the city’s iteration of it. “How is somebody only given a safe sleep as a reward for working? That is cruel … Anybody that’s part of this program will be submitted to the [Homeless Management Information System], a federal database for homeless people, and many of our people do not want that to happen, so it will exclude them also. Less than half of the local Sedona homeless population have vehicles … [Homeless] children are being taken directly from school and put into foster care, so we now have at least half of the families who have now decided not to enroll their children in public school … This is being set up for people to prove they deserve a safe sleep.”
“Feeling good about giving them a place to sleep in a car — I can’t even believe it,” Sandra Wade said. “In a community like this, where there’s money? … We have to sit here and talk about allowing our workers to sleep in a car and think we’re doing something? … We all have something here to contribute financially to get our workforce in some accommodation … is that too much to ask of all of us? … I ask you to please look at another alternative.”