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Homelessness in Arizona is a crisis. These advocates say we need to start treating it like one

The number of people in our community experiencing homelessness is going up. By the latest count, it’s up to about 10,000 people across Maricopa County — up 7% from last year. And it’s become more visible than ever before, from people with signs at street corners to encampments under bridges and in washes to the ongoing controversy over the so-called “Zone” in downtown Phoenix. 

A judge ordered the city of Phoenix to clear out the area earlier this year, and it’s worth noting why hundreds of unsheltered people have congregated there. It’s surrounding what’s called the Human Services Campus — a sort of hub for homelessness in the Valley — where everything from shelter, to food, to healthcare is offered. As of Tuesday, there were still 706 people living on the street in The Zone. 

The public debate over how to solve the problem has largely been mired in lawsuits over The Zone, disputes about how to fund affordable housing and disagreements about whether or not we should give panhandlers money.

In the midst of all of this are people who have made it their lives’ work to help the unhoused. How do they think we should address the problem?

Amy Schwabenlender is CEO of the Human Services Campus in downtown and Cleo Lewis is an outreach pastor to the homeless community in Phoenix with the Assemblies of God Church, he also runs the nonprofit organization Cleo N. Lewis Ministries.

The Show spoke with both of them on the issue.

Interview highlights

The conversation began with just how much worse the situation has gotten in the Valley.

AMY SCHWABENLENDER: “My five-year work anniversary at the Human Services campus is Aug. 1, and someone asked me earlier this morning what's happened in just five years. And I've been working on the issue since 2005, United Way. And a lot, a lot, a lot has changed in 18 years. I think with the pandemic hitting at a time when Phoenix and Maricopa County had been experiencing decades of population growth leading up to a global pandemic and then rents going up dramatically, incomes not going up to match that change in the cost of living, very low vacancy rates in apartments, high eviction rates, the whole change in the economy and employment. And this increased visibility of unsheltered homelessness.”

CLEO LEWIS: “I'm seeing a lot of response in the community. But I'm also sent in a sense of fatigue. We've talked about this too much and there's almost a deflection in when we say the cause of this. Everybody thinks it's either substance abuse addiction or some type of mental health issues. But poverty, it's sad. I had a mother with a four-year-old. The four-year-old looked at me and said, ‘Sir, can you please help us? I’m scared to sleep out here.’”

"But poverty, it's sad. I had a mother with a four-year-old. The four-year-old looked at me and said, ‘Sir, can you please help us? I’m scared to sleep out here.’" — Cleo Lewis

We do not have enough housing to house all of the people on the street right now.

SCHWABENLENDER: “No, we don't have enough indoor spaces, so we don't have enough shelter space to meet the full demand. Tonight when 800 people are outside, our buildings are literally full at the Human Services campus. We do not have space.”  

We have the intense and record breaking heat that we are experiencing in the Valley. And you've got lawsuits kind of on all sides of the issue. Clearing out the zone is happening because of one of those lawsuits, because there are sort of tensions on all sides here. How do you, Cleo, balance those tensions?

LEWIS: “The easiest way we can do this is we have to go to a different way of looking at it. We have to determine what the root causes are. I hear a crisis. I see our policymakers always in front of the mic telling me that homelessness and being unhoused is a crisis situation. I don't see a crisis response. We have outreach teams that are talking to people until 11 o’clock at night. Unfortunately, they can't house that person. So the analogy I use a lot is if we had an accident at a major intersection, I don't care where it would be in the Valley. We would bring the resources to bear. We would stage this up until we took care of every one of those individuals. But when we talk about homelessness, I am simply tired of hearing the ‘Let's take care of this next month.’” 

Cleo, you talked about mental illness, substance abuse and also poverty, which is probably the part that’s left out of this sometimes. Where do you think we should put resources in terms of trying to help redirect people before they end up homeless?

LEWIS: “Well, we have to almost redefine what poverty is. We have the federal definition of poverty. But what I'm finding out is, there are a lot of traditional two parent households that simply can't pay not so much their mortgage, but rent. I'm finding people that may do it the first time when their rent increases dramatically. Sometimes these rents are increasing 30%. The evictions, I'm having constables call in me. I have to evict that person. What can we do?”

"It's overwhelming every single day." — Amy Schwabenlender

Tell us what gives you hope in this very difficult work that you do?

SCHWABENLENDER: ”People like Cleo give me hope. It's overwhelming every single day. Any of us who work at the Human Services campus see upwards of 2,000 people, half of them living in conditions people shouldn't be living in, half of them able to sleep inside in a shelter bed or a mat on the floor. It's fatiguing to watch that level of everything bad, right? My own employees, employees at all our campus partner organizations, though, they give me hope because they keep coming back. They're working on the solutions. They're responding. When Cleo makes a call and says, 'I have this situation right now on the street, what can we do together?' Our volunteers who come in and they just do whatever we ask them to do.”

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.