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Tents, tarps and shopping carts line several streets of brick buildings and barbed-wire fences on the outskirts of downtown Phoenix each night, creating makeshift camps for dozens of people.
Within eyesight, an overflow shelter at Maricopa County’s biggest hub of homeless services has space for some of them. Agencies say they can permanently house many people who stay there with a few months of help and several thousand dollars.
A shift in focus from shelter to housing is working, leaders say. Most of those who completed a recent rehousing pilot program for people with moderate needs ended it in their own apartments.
But in the roughly two years since the full launch of the services overhaul, street homelessness in the county increased about 60 percent, according to the most recent count.
The blocks surrounding the Human Services Campus at 12th Avenue and Madison Street are the epicenter of a change troubling neighborhoods throughout the city: More people are sleeping where they haven’t before — in alleys, along washes and in encampments.
It’s not just in the Phoenix metro area. San Diego also saw a spike in its unsheltered population this year. Cities like Portland and Seattle are reporting more camps on the streets.
Local service providers have no concrete explanations for the shift, though they suggest a lack of affordable housing and mental health and substance abuse issues likely contribute. There also may be fewer places for people to go in the Valley after several transitional housing programs lost federal money last year.
Groups that fund homeless services say the hundreds of people recently housed through new programs offset growth in the population. The latest one-night census puts the total number of homeless people in Maricopa County at 5,605, which has stayed steady the past few years.
Agencies now have solutions to end those people’s homelessness, said Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of community impact for funding group Valley of the Sun United Way. But with limited resources and thousands who are eligible, the gap is visible.
“That inflow of people is still there,” Schwabenlender said.
Hundreds housed but thousands unsheltered
The 738 single adults housed over about two years is a “tremendous effort,” said Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department.
The placements emerged from a shift in philosophy at the Human Services Campus by a range of public and private agencies that fund services.
A few years ago, people could sleep at an old warehouse and asphalt lot with little movement to get them housed.
Now, a campus dining room transforms nightly into an overflow space lined with mats and blankets. To enter,clients must take an assessment that targets what support they need to end their homelessness.
Nearly 9,000 people stayed in the overflow shelter over a 21-month period ending in February, Liggett said.
Some can be diverted from the system with quick assistance, like a connection to friends or family. Others have physical or mental health conditions that require specialized housing and permanent support services — a population that’s growing at the campus, said TJ Reed, regional coordinated entry system manager.
Many, though, need temporary help finding housing and paying their rent. It’s the basis of rapid rehousing programs that have accounted for nearly two-thirds of the housing placements by funding agencies.
Numbers at the overflow shelter are trending the right way, Liggett said. Nightly averages have steadily dropped and are now below its capacity of 275. The main shelter at the campus, though, is always full.
“We’ve come so far from where we were,” Liggett said.
But there’s been little change in the total homeless population, according to the county’s point-in-time count. The one-night census is only an estimate but aims to document people staying in shelters and on the street.
The 2,059 unsheltered people found this year on an early morning in January is a five-year high. Significantly fewer people stayed in shelter this year than in 2016.
Several variables muddle the data. Factors like weather and improved counting techniques can affect the street census, for example.
Maricopa County also lost beds counted as shelter this year when the federal government cut funding for transitional housing, said Anne Scott, human-services planner for the Maricopa Association of Governments, which coordinates the survey.
That doesn’t fully account for the change, though, Scott said. Some people surveyed are far from downtown services, she said. Others say they prefer to sleep outside.
“The other part of the story is people aren’t accessing shelter,” she said.
Camping, trash ‘impossible to keep up with’
The effects are clear just outside the Human Services Campus. Carts piled high with blankets and other belongings lined the perimeter on a recent morning. Trash cans overflowed onto the street with clothing and debris.
Property owners say the influx of people has brought a health and safety issue with no clear solution.
The executive director of Andre House of Phoenix, which serves meals adjacent to the campus, wrote in an email to the city in February that the organization was “drowning” in litter, human waste and 40 to 80 people sleeping next to its building each night.
People outside the campus still have access to the food there, as well as the donations brought to the street by church and community groups.
Surrounding businesses have struggled or closed due to the people sleeping in alleys and lining up for meals or services in front of buildings, said Matthew Santa Maria, who lives and works across the street from the campus.
The state of the area dissuades customers, and people leave a constant stream of waste that’s “impossible for a business owner to keep up with,” he said. Property owners said they are eager to work on resolutions but noted a disconnect among agencies in the area.
Earlier this year, for example, a complaint about defecation in alleys resulted in health-code violation warning letters sent to property owners by the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department.
After inspectors found about 40 tents in the area, one letter sent to a property owner cited human feces and uncontained garbage in the alley. Another gave the recipient 24 hours to “cease the flow of sewage” and apply powdered disinfectant before reinspection or possibly face legal action.
The complaint is still under investigation, and the county is looking for long-term solutions, Johnny Diloné, media and community relations manager for the department, said in an email. Even after cleanings, county staff found human excreta and garbage in the alleys again became “excessive.”
Santa Maria said he didn’t know of any of the property warnings that had escalated to enforcement. The issue was clarified with the department, though the situation “could have been handled better,” said Mike Trailor, director of the Arizona Department of Housing.
And the neighborhood concerns are fair, though issues have improved since start of the year, said Mike McQuaid, chairman of the Human Services Campus board.
Responsibility for the area should improve as Maricopa County transfers ownership of the land to the campus, he said.
The goal is to get everyone experiencing homelessness inside, McQuaid said. Outreach teams often have success, he said, though mental health and substance abuse issues can make it harder.
“We’re left with the most difficult to serve,” he said.
Rent assistance works for many
Agencies funding the services — including state, county and local departments and the Valley of the Sun United Way — say they’re getting better at finding housing for people once they’re in the system.
An analysis completed late last year looked at about 250 people who completed or were still participating in a rapid rehousing program started roughly two years ago with about $2.5 million.
The analysis is only a snapshot of the first year before a final report is released in June,Schwabenlender said. She called the initial outcomes positive.
Data is missing for nearly a quarter of participants who exited the program, according to the assessment by Focus Strategies. But about 84 percent of people with known destinations ended the program in permanent housing. Data doesn’t yet show how long they stayed there.
Assistance averaged roughly $6,000 — less than the $10,000 budgeted — and lasted about five months, Schwabenlender said. About half of the money went toward rental assistance and start-up costs like application fees and utility deposits; the rest went to case management.
“We’ve done what we’ve set out to do,” Schwabenlender said.
Not everyone ended up in housing. Nearly 100 people talked to providers but didn’t receive money from the program.
And of those known, about 7 percent of program participants returned to homelessness. A few others went to temporary housing, jail, hospitals or died.
But for rapid-rehousing participants like Marcus Goldman, the assistance is the jumpstart they need to start paying their own rent again.
Goldman, 48, already had an unstable living situation when he spent a few months in the hospital with valley fever and meningitis last year. When doctors released him, a cab dropped him off at the Human Services Campus.
He couldn’t work as he recovered at the shelter. A month later, a car ran over his foot, he said.
“I didn’t know what life would hold for me,” Goldman said.
But once he qualified for rapid rehousing, a caseworker from service provider A New Leaf helped him find a simple apartment in central Phoenix last May. He received rent assistance through February.
He now uses unemployment and temporary work to pay his bills and expects to start receiving disability benefits soon.
Goldman said he’s determined to never again stay at the campus.
“They blessed me,” Goldman said.
City, county looking for neighborhood solutions
But there are challenges to scaling housing programs to meet the region’s need.
The improved rapid-rehousing system could dissolve if funding runs out, Schwabenlender said. Groups are trying to broaden financial support.
Even with more money, finding affordable apartments is difficult, Schwabenlender said. Vacancy rates are low, and average rent costs are increasing.
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And there’s a perception with some landlords that people transitioning out of homelessness could pose issues as tenants, Trailor said.
The Arizona Department of Housing plans to help launch a mitigation fund in June to address those concerns. Landlords who sign on could access the fund if there’s excessive damage to their properties.
“We’re trying to break down all the barriers,” Trailor said.
In the meantime, agencies throughout the region are contemplating short-term interventions for issues causing community concern.
North of the central core, neighborhood complaints have swelled at city parks and along the light-rail line. Phoenix is asking church and community groups to partner with established providers instead of independently offering meals or donations to homeless people.
A pilot program in the works would close alleys in the Royal Palm neighborhood to address concerns from residents worried about people sleeping there, or using them to jump into backyards, said Councilwoman Debra Stark, who represents the area.
Phoenix’s proposed budget this year includes adding contracted outreach workers.
“I’ve got a lot of optimism that will help,” Stark said.
And along with the push for housing, funding groups are considering how to improve temporary shelter.
Central Arizona Shelter Services, which provides beds for 470 people each night to people on the Human Services Campus, recently relaxed its rules to encourage more people to go inside.
Clients are no longer required to be sober, as long as they don’t pose a safety risk, Chief Operating Officer Ursula Strephans said. Light chores and case management are no longer mandatory.
Maricopa County also is looking to soon award funding for homeless and shelter services outside of Phoenix to spread resources. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul recently broke ground on a $16 million shelter south of downtown for older adults and people with disabilities.
And campus leaders will look to use its shelter space more efficiently near downtown, McQuaid said.
The Central Arizona Shelter Services facility, for example, is capped at less than half of the number of beds it was built to hold, based primarily on neighborhood concerns, McQuaid said.
But even without the extra beds, the campus draws people. And people have always slept outside.
“We’ve had almost 1,000 people here every night for the last 10 years,” McQuaid said. “We want to have the ability to put them in shelter.”
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