The Sedona Police Department, along with U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officials and social service workers, have swept two areas in city limits where people have been camping illegally.
According to U.S. Forest Service rules, people can camp at any one location on the forest for up to two weeks without a permit. The rules vary from national forest to national forest, but in general, campers cannot camp elsewhere in that forest for two weeks, not can they return to that same site for 30 or 60 days. The city limits of Sedona contain several hundred acres of the Coconino National Forest within its boundaries.
In those areas of dual jurisdiction, city ordinances are in effect, which explicitly prohibit camping in the city in the same way one cannot camp in the middle of a roundabout.
The term “sweep” erroneously conjures images of heavily-armed cops making arrests of everyone in the area but the truth is far more benign: It is a few officers walking to a campsite with volunteer social service workers in tow, informing those there that they are violating city code and have to pack up and go elsewhere.
The social workers offer their services if those campers need treatment for their mental health issues or other psychological or physical conditions.
Unfortunately for these people, there are no homeless shelters in Sedona and are sparse in the Verde Valley, offering few places for the homeless to get back on their feet.
In my time in Sedona, I’ve offered my sofa to half a dozen wayward lost souls who needed temporary refuge until they could find a new place to live, but they were all friends or friends of friends who had been vouched for. However, many of our chronically homeless residents do not have a support network of friends with whom they can stay when times get tough or are suffering from an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness that may preclude them from holding a steady job or paying rent like the rest of us, leaving them stuck without residence or income.
Many others simply choose to live off the grid or want to be in touch with nature. While that’s all well and good, they can’t do so on USFS land within city limits.
The law is still the law.
Some of the homeless may turn to panhandling, which has been more noticeable around Sedona the last two to three years. While many people may complain about panhandlers on the corners of local grocery plazas, panhandling is legal across the county due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
That case invalidated a ban on A-frame signage, under the First Amendment protection of free speech. The court stated that the government cannot base ordinances or laws on the content of signage, merely the time, place and mechanics of that signage. Lower courts have since ruled that the Reed ruling also applies to panhandling on public property as government rules trying to prohibit the activity are de facto violations of the panhandlers’ free speech.
Yet prevalent panhandling and periodic sweeps of illegal camp sites is not a sustainable way for a small community like Sedona to endure as it speaks to how we residents treat our most economically vulnerable. A local homeless shelter or a regional one serving all Verde Valley municipalities could help those who seek help get back on their feet, but it would take commitment from local nonprofits and volunteers to provide the time, money and resources to see such a network or facility be built.