A Capitol Idea

Phoenix Community Alliance's new plan for the Capitol Mall sends the homeless scrambling while the city looks the other way

Keuth says the map lapse is more of an oversight than a vision. "I can't really tell you why they aren't on there," he says. "The only thing I can think is that the map was really just meant to show new projects in the area."

The map does, however, contain dozens of existing buildings; it's just that none of them serve the poor and homeless.

It's a peculiar omission for the PCA, which in the past four years has invested more thought in the mall than any city, county or state agency has in the past decade.

In 1996, PCA joined Arizona State University's downtown center and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects in an extended workshop that laid out some of the problems afflicting the area. To no one's surprise, the one that rose to the top is the mall's obvious concentration of homeless people and services.

Earlier this year, the PCA and the same co-sponsors smartly detailed the extent of the area's social services and problems in a comprehensive report titled Gather the Tools.

The mall has been the subject of numerous plans and studies since the 1950s. However, the two PCA-sponsored reports offer far and away the most comprehensive assessments of the urban promise and policies at stake in revitalizing the area.

Gather the Tools cites the loss of affordable rental housing, the rising poverty rate, changes in welfare funding, decreased federal funding of public housing and the lack of supportive housing and services as key contributing factors to homelessness. It recommends a combination of public/private policy fixes and initiatives, ranging from the creation of comprehensive housing policies by Valley cities and a state plan for supportive housing to the private development of downtown single-room-occupancy inns, and requirements for affordable housing in any city-assisted housing projects in the central city.

The Capitol Mall's problems have grown there by default.
"No one decided to make that area the place for homeless services," says Shultz. "But no other communities were willing to take them. And politicians obviously didn't have a desire to make a decision to put those services anywhere else."

St. Vincent de Paul has had a dining room in the area since the early 1950s. Yet the report from the 1996 design workshop, which the PCA co-sponsored, partly attributes the boom in downtown Phoenix homelessness to the demolition over the past 30 years of more than 33 downtown flophouses. All of them sat between Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue. About two-thirds of them were concentrated east of Central Avenue and south of Adams, where civic plaza, the stadium, arena and museums now stand.

In the past decade, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, a group formed by the PCA to manage the downtown redevelopment district, has been especially vocal about the need to rid downtown Phoenix of the old inns, which are referred to as single-room-occupancy, or SROs.

Experts say Phoenix's demolition of downtown SROs matched urban-renewal trends in other American cities. Estimates put the nationwide loss of SRO rooms at 500,000 in the past 40 years. The loss in Phoenix was between 3,000 and 4,000.

"I think they really believed that if they tore down all those buildings, the people--they called them transients in those days--would just go away," says Mary Orton, who directed CASS from 1985 to '97. "But it just exacerbated the problem."

Orton and others recall that the downtown homeless population ballooned in the winter of 1982, in the thick of a national recession, following a summer of downtown SRO demolitions. The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul opened two stopgap shelters. But by mid-1984, both organizations wanted out of the difficult downtown shelter business. The city offered $100,000 to any organization willing to run a shelter. But no one responded. So a city-appointed panel came up with the idea of forming a nonprofit agency.

Its uneasy birth has made CASS something of a city stepchild. Phoenix owns the CASS building and provides a substantial chunk of its operating budget--$3.2 million this year. In other respects, CASS is a Valley stepchild and dumping ground. Hospitals have been known to drop off indigent patients who aren't sick enough to remain hospitalized but nevertheless require a place to stay. State and county prisons and jails release inmates to CASS who are on parole or probation and have no other place to go. In 1997, about two-thirds of the 948 parolees that the Arizona Department of Corrections released to homeless shelters in Tucson and Phoenix ended up at CASS.

Mark Holleran, the chief executive officer of CASS, estimates that about a third of the 300 to 400 daily residents at CASS have come from the prison system.

State and county revenues make up a large portion of CASS's annual budget. Additional funds come from 14 other Valley towns and cities. The fact is, CASS is a large part of the homeless program for municipalities like Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Tempe and others.

Advocates for relocating the downtown shelter tend to forget the war that won its present spot. In the early 1980s, a citizens committee appointed by Mayor Margaret Hance had attempted and failed several times to agree on a location for the shelter. When Mayor Terry Goddard took office in 1984, he made the establishment of a site a priority. The shelter opened in 1985.

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