A Capitol Idea

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

Many people with stakes in the area's future say that real change--change that returns humaneness and sanity to the bleak streets at the east end of Capitol Mall--will require more than a policy of pressuring the homeless and the agencies that assist them. And it will demand more than large institutions like CASS.

"CASS is really not a solution to this," says Mark Holleran. "But Horace Steele Commons is."

Opened last year on Grand Avenue, in a rehabbed motor lodge, Steele Commons is what's known as supportive housing. It was built by Arizona Housing Incorporated, a nonprofit affiliate of CASS. Its 60 rooms--about 330 square feet each--house people with very low incomes, and a range of needs that require some help and supervision. Rents are no more than 30 percent of the residents' total income. None of the residents makes more than $6.40 an hour or pays more than $332 a month in rent--well below the $400 to $700 a month that developers often mention as being affordable.

It's been home to Jimmy C. since late last year. A gaunt white man with fading straw-colored hair in his early 40s, he says he'd be on the street or dead if he hadn't found a room there. Past and continuing woes include a stint in prison, a bout with throat cancer that left him unable to swallow food normally and gave him a feeding tube plugged into his stomach, and years of mental illness requiring a steady diet of antipsychotic medications. Last June he nearly killed himself with an overdose of antidepressants.

His main worry about recovering, he says, "was that people would shun me and not let me come back. But when I got out of the hospital and came home--this is my home--I saw that my picture was up on top of a collage we have down at the office. Whoever dies goes up top. And that's where they had my picture. This place is about getting better."

Standing one evening in the parking lot of the Commons, he pointed to a hunched woman pushing a shopping cart down Grand Avenue. She was muttering loudly to herself, jerking her head from side to side and fiddling with a torn scarf around her head.

"That's Katherine," he told me. "She used to live here, but she just really couldn't handle the structure. And she hasn't been taking her meds. She really needs someone to watch out for her, give her some help."

Patricia Ecker, an administrator at Steele Commons and formerly a caseworker at CASS, says that a wide gap between mental-health needs and services has relegated many people like Katherine to the street. In its recent application for funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city estimates that about 530 of the Valley's 1,230 seriously mentally ill homeless people are receiving no care. Close to 1,000 who suffer from both serious mental illness and substance abuse are in the same boat. The numbers are considerably higher for homeless people suffering only from substance abuse.

"These are people who have a very difficult time moving off of the street and into housing," says Ecker. "Many of them, especially the ones with mental illnesses, need someone to walk them through things and sort of keep track of them, make sure they're taking their meds and whatnot."

Holleran and others point out that if the PCA and others are serious about getting the homeless off the streets, they are going to have to establish more places like Steele Commons. At the moment, it is the only place like it in the Valley. Moreover, it took three years of hard planning and a complex weave of funding from more than a dozen different sources to create it.

He likes to contrast that with the fact that in 1997 alone the private sector built about 8,000 multifamily homes in Maricopa County.

"My point is that if they have the right motivation, they can pop these out," Holleran says.

Yet experts on the homeless note that places like Steele Commons are only part of what's needed to move people off of the streets. Gather the Tools stresses the need for a comprehensive range of supportive services and housing, from emergency shelters and SROs to transitional and long-term and permanent affordable housing.

Holleran is convinced that, as time goes on, the federal government is going to fund these needs and other kinds of programs less and less.

"And that's okay. The feds don't know what kind of problems we have on Madison," he says. "But the city of Phoenix mayor's office does, and he's in a position to do something about it. But it will take political guts."

Steve Zabilski, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, says part of the difficulty in coming up with a moving plan, or an answer to the homeless problems downtown and elsewhere, is the complexity of issues involved. Citing Gather the Tools, he echoes the call for providing additional affordable places for people to live.

But, says Zabilski, housing is not the whole solution for the homeless poor.
"There are people with problems with alcohol or drug dependency or mental-health issues, or people fleeing battering husbands," he says, adding that these people need supportive services to get them up on their feet. "If we can do that, then St. Vincent de Paul might find itself in the position where maybe there are only 100 people on the streets."

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