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Guest Essay by William Noonan published in the Red Rock News on Wednesday April 3, 2024

Let the People Vote on the Homeless Car Park

The Sedona City Council recently authorized a homeless car park in the Cultural Park next to the stage of the old Georgia Frontiere Pavilion amphitheater.   The site is officially called the “Safe Place to Park” where homeless people will be allowed to park overnight.  There was much public opposition to the city’s decision, so I set up an organization to circulate a ballot referendum petition and give the people of Sedona a chance to vote on this matter.  If at least 597 registered voters of Sedona sign the petition by April 11, the city’s decision will be referred to the people.   The residents of Sedona will then be able to vote in November to decide the future of the Cultural Park. 

Sedona has a record of failure with programs designed to help the homeless.  Last year Sedona gave a grant to the Sedona Area Homeless Alliance to help find shelter for homeless people on cold nights, but that grant was revoked because of “administrative irregularities”.  The city then stepped in to establish a $30,000 “Code Blue” program to give housing vouchers to the homeless on cold nights.  Not a single voucher was issued by the city and the program was a waste of public resources.

            Now the city has selected the Verde Valley Homeless Coalition to administer its “Safe Place to Park” program in the Cultural Park.  This is the same group whose former executive director was arrested for fraud and embezzlement in 2020, yet the city now wants to entrust that same organization with hundreds of thousands of public dollars to run the homeless car park in the Cultural Park. No wonder people are skeptical about the program.

            The homeless car park has been advertised as temporary “workforce housing” while the city builds more permanent alternatives. However, the city knows it cannot discriminate against unemployed people.  The city’s stated requirements for admission change at a dizzying pace, but the city website itself acknowledges admission is not limited to workers.  

The car park is said to be a “temporary” solution that can be closed at any time, but when San Luis Obispo recently tried to close its “Safe Car Park” due to public health hazards, it was sued by the homeless people who parked there.  A judge issued a restraining order to keep the park open.   The same thing could happen here.

            In addition to its record of failure with homeless programs, city employees undercut public confidence by inadequately informing city residents about the program. They performed no targeted outreach to residents in neighborhoods near the park but instead asked people who might benefit from the program to comment on it.

            At a public hearing about the car park, one woman stood with her child at the podium as the mother tearfully explained she wanted to let go of the “financial aspect” of her life so she quit her job to live the “nomad lifestyle” in a vehicle with her child.  It was disheartening to think Sedona would encourage such behavior.  Others said they made the nomad lifestyle choice to live in their vehicles and they would appreciate a place to park overnight at public expense.  I respect these lifestyle choices, but that is not a reason to subsidize them.

            City officials justified the homeless car park because housing costs in Sedona are high, but I own a rental home in Cottonwood and know there are more affordable housing options just 20 minutes away.  Workers can share apartments with others, or even move to other cities to enjoy a more affordable lifestyle.  I have been told that homelessness is the “new reality” that we must accept.  But I believe we make our own reality through public policy. Subsidizing homelessness only makes it worse, and our first step should be to stop making the problem worse. 

            The international press has pilloried Sedona for making workers sleep in their cars and they have a point.  It is inhumane to put them in a parking lot.  The city is spending almost a million dollars over two years to run a homeless car park with 40 parking spaces.   That is over $1000 per month per vehicle.  The city could have directly subsidized housing for these people instead of spending it on a homeless car park run by the Verde Valley Homeless Alliance that is collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for its “services.”

            A public referendum on the homeless car park will help decide the future of the Cultural Park, the last great scenic open space in Sedona.  That park has better uses than a homeless car park or apartment complexes.  The city is placing the homeless site next to the amphitheater stage which will discourage development of alternative proposals for the park, such as restoring the amphitheater or revitalizing the park as a gathering place for the community.  Meanwhile the city is fast-tracking “master planning” the Cultural Park for “high density housing” that would spoil the natural splendor of that site of sacred beauty.   It could also turn Sedona into just another soulless little town overrun with high-density housing.

            Sedona holds a special place in the imagination of the world.  We should use that prominence to change the national conversation about homelessness and overdevelopment.  We can do that if the car park is on the ballot.  Everyone should want the chance to help determine whether the Cultural Park will be parking lots and apartment buildings or a tranquil oasis in the heart of the red rocks. —- by William Noonan, a retired physician and attorney who practiced biomedical patent law for many years in Portland, Oregon, before he moved to Sedona.