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Most experts expect an increase in homelessness. But this pastor wonders if we'll know by how much

Late last month, more than 400 volunteers fanned out across the Phoenix area as part of the point-in-time count — a one-day snapshot of our homeless situation. The count did not happen last year because of the pandemic.

Nicky Stevens, the regional homelessness program manager with the Maricopa Association of Governments, says the count went smoothly. And for the first time, it was paperless. The results aren’t expected to come out until later this month, but Stevens says there will probably be an increase in the number of residents experiencing homelessness from the last count in 2020.

"So we met all kinds of interesting individuals, and coming from many different backgrounds and scenarios. And I think one of the common themes was some trauma. You know, I think that is something we saw across the board from listening to some of the stories of the people that we interviewed," Stevens said.

Stevens says some of that was pandemic-related, and that several people referenced it as a reason they’d lost their homes. But not everybody who works with those experiencing homelessness think this kind of count leads to the most accurate picture of the issue in the Valley. Cleo Lewis is an outreach pastor. He usually works in Sunnyslope, but isn’t only in that area. He says he’s been doing this work for 10 years, but that it’s more than just a job to him.

"The journey that I went through gave me the passion for what I do now," Lewis said.

That journey for Lewis includes being homeless himself. And he says there needs to be a more proactive effort to identify the issues affecting those experiencing homelessness. For example, Lewis says it can take outreach workers contacting someone up to five times before they’ll make the decision to get help or shelter. 

The Show spoke with Lewis, who talked about how he ended up homeless.

Stevens, with the Maricopa Association of Governments, says while the point-in-time count presents a snapshot in time, it’s not the only way officials can get a sense of how many Valley residents are experiencing homelessness.

"So we do have a way that we track that currently, through the Homeless Management Information System, HMIS … and we do currently do that. But [Housing and Urban Development] requires we do the point-in-time count this way. So we do have a good handle on the numbers that we see through our homeless management system, but HUD does require we do this actual point-in-time," Stevens said.

Stevens says Maricopa Association of Governments also works with education partners, in an effort to find out about families that might not otherwise not be counted.

In the last point-in-time count, in 2020, Stevens says there were 7,419 people experiencing homelessness on that day. That was a 12% increase over the year before. And she and others are expecting another increase this year. That could also be the case in the other communities also doing their own point-in-time counts.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.