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Homeless in Plain Sight: The impact on Phoenix businesses, neighborhoods

Residents in central Phoenix have found needles, condoms and human waste in their alleys.
(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Residents in central Phoenix have found needles, condoms and human waste in their alleys.

This is Part III 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.

The issue of homelessness touches all our lives – from public policy to our tax dollars, from our neighborhoods to our businesses.

The neighborhood

AJ Marsden lives in Phoenix’s Pasadena neighborhood.

“We have 350 homes,” she said. “Our boundaries are 7th Avenue to 15th Avenue, Camelback to Missouri.”

Marsden said her neighbors are just as wonderful as when she moved in sixteen years ago, but the area around them has changed.

“Not as safe, not as comfortable,” she said. “At first I could still compartmentalize it and say, oh well, that’s 19th and Camelback, and I’m at 7th Avenue and Camelback, so I could still distance myself a little bit, but then the same situations were happening at 7th and Camelback.”

They started seeing more panhandlers and people camping at bus stops. Behind their homes, Marsden said they find human waste, needles, condoms and sometimes people sleeping.

“One neighbor startled a homeless person when the homeowner was taking out the trash and the homeless person did slash them a little bit with a knife,” she said.

It’s little consolation, but Marsden said through her work with Phoenix’s block watch advisory board, she’s learned the problem stretches across the city.

“Almost every neighborhood mentions panhandling, homeless of some sort,” she said.

The restaurant

Near 23rd and Northern avenues, Monica Merenda and her brother David Valdivia manage Los Compadres, the family’s restaurant.

“The business opened in 1986, I was born that year,” Valdivia said with a laugh. ”I used to tell people I was born in the kitchen.”

Since the recession, Merenda said the area’s been flooded with people who are homeless.

“And they’re surrounded by people like them so they’ve developed camps, they’ve developed little groups of people they move along with and they just shuffle back and forth down this couple mile stretch of road,” she said.

But, sometimes they stop. And, sometimes it gets ugly.

“Our customers, like little old ladies, getting their purse snatched. My brother literally has chased down people to get the purse back down the parking lot,” Merenda said. “We have, we’ve had beggars you know like people out there just grabbing money, hands out, from customers in and out the door all day long.”

It forced the family to get into the policing business. They posted 'No Trespassing' signs and filed paperwork allowing cops to arrest offenders.

“We’ve committed to making sure every time we see someone hanging out we push ‘em through, get ‘em through,” Valdivia explained. “You gotta go. We’re gonna call the cops. Every time.”

They don’t do it because they’re heartless, they said, but because they care about their business and community.

"Dave and I are fifth generation natives to Arizona and fourth to Phoenix,” Merenda said.

Her brother added, “If we just up and left and said 'Well, forget this neighborhood' then we’re just leaving it for someone else and we’re just leaving the issue there.”

“Right,” Merenda said, “and what does that say for our legacy, for our family’s legacy?”

The downtown business district

Reputation also matters to businesses downtown.

“There was like two or three incidents that happened that raised an alarm,” said Chris Spahle. “It triggered DPI to just take the next step in our outreach.”

Spahle is an ambassador for Downtown Phoenix, Inc. They’re the people wearing orange shirts, answering questions, and giving directions. For the past six months, Spahle has been working with Tim McCann, the peer support and outreach services manager for Community Bridges, a behavioral health provider.

Once a week, they hit the streets to share information and encourage people to accept services.

“It’s not just a program that is saying, move out of the city,” said Spahle. “It’s a program that’s saying we care about you, you count, too. We’re not just saying move along. We’re saying there is assistance available.”

On this day, they talked with a man who was booted from his regular spot outside a doughnut shop after getting into an argument with firefighters.

“No better time than now,” Spahle told him. “You’re just gonna get frustrated again.”

In response, the man waved his hands around and said, “And leave all this behind?”

“He’s not kidding though,” Spahle said. “Leave all this? People giving me something? I sit here, all day. I’m good.”

Out of seven interactions observed by KJZZ, only one person seemed receptive — and that’s a victory for this duo. Since teaming up, Tim said they haven’t had to call a crisis response team out in at least two months.

“Where in the beginning it was once or twice or three times a week,” he said.

Back at Los Compadres Restaurant, Merenda and Valdivia say panhandlers are getting the message thanks to the "no trespassing" signs and police response. While in the Pasadena neighborhood, Marsden is still waiting for the day when she feels safe enough to once again walk to the grocery store.

The city

Marsden is happy to hear that Phoenix’s current budget proposal calls for eliminating six positions from the Human Services Department and using the $500,000 instead to hire a social service agency to conduct homeless outreach.

“It’s not Democrat, it’s not Republican, it’s fiscally responsible,” she said. “We can save so many police hours and we’re providing services and cutting down on crime. To me, it’s a win-win situation.”

“Is it a huge task? Yes, but we have to do something,” said Vice Mayor Laura Pastor who represents the Pasadena Neighborhood on the Phoenix City Council. “We across the city are having a huge influx of homeless issues.”

Pastor said city departments are making progress in being more collaborative.

“When I first entered the city I felt the departments were operating in a silo fashion,” she explained. “And, now they’re talking to each other and pulling all the resources together and services to be able to help.”

Since our series originally aired in May 2017, the city of Phoenix has:

  • · Eliminated six vacant positions in the Human Services Department and used the money to hire a social service agency to conduct homeless outreach.
  • · Launched PHX C.A.R.E.S.to address homeless encampments across the city.
  • · Approved moving $125,000 budgeted for private security guards at park-and-ride lots to hire one homeless outreach team to respond to light rail vehicles and stations.

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