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Homeless in Plain Sight: The people, programs and potential solutions

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Downtown Phoenix, Inc., Outreach Coordinator Chris Spahle encourages a man to get a free lunch at St. Vincent de Paul.

This is Part I in a special five-part series, Homeless In Plain Sight, in which KJZZ hopes to start a community conversation about the people, programs and potential solutions to homelessness in the Phoenix area.

How many people are homeless?

The person you may think is homeless may not be. Just because someone is holding a sign that reads ‘Homeless, please help,’ doesn’t mean it’s true.

“I definitely think you have to separate panhandlers from people experiencing homelessness,” said Anne Scott. “There are people that experience homelessness that panhandle but not everybody that panhandles is experiencing homelessness.”

Scott is the Human Services Planner for the Maricopa Association of Governments, known as MAG. Working with municipalities, nonprofits and other groups, MAG serves as the lead agency on developing homeless policies.

“At any one point in time we generally have about 6,000 people that are homeless,” she said.

That includes people both in and out of shelters. MAG’s numbers come from what’s called thePoint-in-Time Count. One morning a year, volunteers spread out across the county to determine how many people are homeless during a given point-in-time.

Over the past four years, the number of people living on the streets has nearly doubled to a little more than 2,000. Scott thinks the higher number could be due to improved counting techniques.

A MAG training video encourages teams to gather information which is used to offer services and compile data on sub-categories for people with histories of mental illness, substance abuse and military service.

The count is used to get federal money. Communities must follow the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness. Simply put, a person who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence is considered homeless.

How much money do we spend?

MAG gets about $26 million a year in federal funds and distributes it to more than40 local programs. HUD wants communities to focus on two areas: rapid re-housing which includes short-term help like utility or rent assistance andpermanent, supportive housing which can involve a lifetime of services and housing for the chronically homeless.

Steven probably falls into the chronically homeless category. On a recent weekday he was sitting on a park bench in downtown Phoenix with a faded hospital ID bracelet on his wrist and flies buzzing around his thick, silver hair. An outreach team made up of a representative ofDowntown Phoenix, Inc. and Community Bridges encouraged Steven to get a free lunch at St. Vincent de Paul.

Tim McCann with Community Bridges asked Steven about his housing situation. “Last week when we talked you were working with somebody on housing, correct?"

“Yeah, low-income apartment,” Steven responded.

“What’s going on with that?” McCann asked.

“Takes a while, takes a while,” Steven said.

Why it's not easy to get people into housing

Convincing Steven and others who’ve been homeless for a long time to move into permanent housing can be challenging. So can finding landlords. While federal law prohibits discrimination based on things like race, gender, and disabilities, landlords can reject people with bad credit histories or criminal backgrounds – even if they show up with housing vouchers provided by MAG.

“We’re really working with people with very complex needs,” Scott explained. “What we’re doing by resolving their housing and wrapping supportive services around them, that impacts savings in the health-care industry, in your law enforcement budget.”

Can we end chronic homelessness?

TheU.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness which coordinates the federal response set a goal to end chronic homelessnessthis year.

“Ending chronic homelessness would mean that we have enough units that for every person that we have identified as experiencing chronic homelessness we have enough resources to end their homelessness,” Scott said.

MAG is not on track to end chronic homelessness this year, but Scott believes there will come a time when the Valley has a system in place so that anyone who is homeless and wants help can get it.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.