A Capitol Idea
Martin Shultz's associates say that he has never been shy around power.
A member of the Phoenix Comm- unity Alliance (PCA), a private group of downtown corporate and business leaders, and for the past 20 years the director of governmental relations at Arizona Public Service Company, he cut his political teeth in the 1960s and early '70s as a chief of staff for three Phoenix mayors. He was the marketing director for the Phoenix Suns before they moved downtown. He's as adept at spinning and pitching policies and projects as he is at knowing who to call and when to throw some friendly weight behind a good idea.
"I'll tell you why we're feeling emboldened these days," he says, elbows propped on a small conference table in his 20th-floor office at Arizona Center. "Here we are in the 1998 time frame and people are looking around and saying, 'Ahhh, the ballpark. Ahhh, the streetscape.' And here comes the Collier property.
This new downtown is the fruit of the labor of folks involved with the PCA in the early years. What you see is what we envisioned around here."
The private sector led the way in downtown's revitalization, he says, "because there was no political will. Not one politician said it wasn't doable," he allows. "They just said there was no political will for it, and in their scheme of things, it wasn't a priority."
And that's the way things at City Hall still appear to him and others at the PCA. "So we're going to help them set their priorities by doing something that everybody knows in their gut is the right thing to do. This is the next step in central city development."
The step that he has in mind is the redevelopment of that stretch of dilapidation known as the Capitol Mall. Its name conjures the spacious civic and cultural commons found in Washington, D.C. But the blighted swath that extends from Seventh Avenue to the state Capitol, and from Van Buren Street to the railroad tracks, is more a hole in the heart of the city and state.
From an urban-design standpoint, it is a wasteland of bad, ill-fitting or broken ideas and designs, with a few refurbished historical architectural gems sprinkled amid surface parking and vacant, trash-strewn lots.
Architects have dissed the western end of the mall as an industrial park for civil servants. And they're not far off. Over the past 40 years, the state has stockpiled an estimated 60 percent of the area's land--about 175 acres, according to the state Department of Administration--contributing to the elimination of one of Phoenix's oldest residential neighborhoods.
Yet it is the eastern end of the Capitol Mall that most concerns Shultz and the PCA. The five-block stretch from 13th Avenue to Eighth Avenue along Jefferson, Madison and Jackson streets is the Valley's homeless central.
Its array of social services includes the 400-bed Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) shelter for homeless men and women, the Maricopa County health clinic for the homeless (up to 4,000 patients yearly), the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall (up to 1,000 lunches a day), and the Andre House of Hospitality (500 to 900 dinners daily, job assistance and clothing). Downtown Learning Center has classes and computers for the motivated. Interfaith Cooperative Ministries provides food boxes and other assistance to the poor. Several labor exchanges farm out temporary day labor. And there's a privately run general-delivery post office where most of the area's estimated 500 to 800 homeless people receive monthly checks and food stamps.
Those are just the legitimate enterprises. Police, homeless advocates and local business owners say the area is packed with street-smart drug dealers and predators attracted to the quick-money potential of a cash, crack-cocaine and food-stamp economy. The area's crime rate is among the highest 25 of Phoenix's more than 2,000 crime grids.
"The whole area has really been just a dumping ground," says Mo Stein, an architect who sits on the board of the CASS shelter and heads the housing committee of the PCA. "The attitude for years was the city would say it's not my problem, it's the state's, and the state would say it's not my problem, it's the city's. And the county would say it's not my problem at all. It's been easy to pass the buck. As a result, the area has been relegated to being the social-disease host for our community. We've just thrown everything we don't want to deal with or see down there."
Yet hopes for development spring eternal. The PCA and others see this mess as fertile ground to grow more downtown housing, stores, restaurants and entertainment. They see it as a place for the state to consolidate the nearly 700,000 square feet of office space it leases elsewhere around the city, making the area a one-stop shopping mall of state affairs.
Shultz and Stein say discussions are under way with developers who want to build a housing and entertainment complex at the current site of the Grace Court School, at Eighth Avenue and Monroe. Other developers have approached the PCA about adding two single-room-occupancy hotels for low-income workers downtown.
The PCA is also leading the charge on several other fronts. Each of the past three years, it has provided $50,000 in operating money to the Capitol Mall Association, a neighborhood organization working to revitalize the area. In 1996, the PCA and the Capitol Mall Association convinced the city to create an overlay district on the Capitol Mall, a special zoning classification that prohibits blood banks, pawnshops and package liquor stores, and requires a special permit for any new charitable dining, shelters or other services for the poor.
And the PCA has partnered with the Joint Urban Design Program at ASU's downtown center and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to produce key studies of the mall.
But advocates for the Valley's estimated 8,000 to 12,000 homeless people have begun to ask whether PCA's vision includes downtown's poor and the agencies that serve them. In Phoenix, as elsewhere, urban renewal has usually begun with urban removal. And the revitalized core between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street has been no exception. Many downtown planners, including some PCA members, contend that the deterioration of the Capitol Mall can be partly attributed to the exclusive--and exclusionary--character of the downtown core's resurgence.
The mall became the place where unwanted or unappetizing elements of civic life were pushed by $2 billion of public and private investments in Civic Plaza, America West Arena, Bank One Ballpark, Arizona Center, the Science and History museums and other improvements.
"The fact is that we just pushed the poor right out of downtown," says Mo Stein. "Now we have to knock on their door and say, 'You have to be part of the solution,' because a lot of these people take tickets at the ballpark. They work at the arena and clean and serve at the hotels."
Beyond questions about the PCA's intentions lies a larger concern about the role of government; in particular, will the city play a more active part this time around in addressing the profound public-policy implications--in the areas of housing and human and neighborhood services--of downtown revitalization?
Those questions have taken on new urgency in recent months. In September, the PCA summoned the heads of the area's key social-service agencies--Andre House, St. Vincent de Paul and CASS--to a meeting and told them that the time had come for the organizations to develop plans to reduce services or leave the area.
"Basically, they gave us an ultimatum," says Nancy Spencer, president of the board of St. Vincent de Paul. "They told us we were on a potential collision course if our organizations continue to serve as we do. They want us to cut our meals in half. They have threatened to condemn us and demolish us and get us out of there, because they want their grandiose plans to go forward."
Donald Keuth Jr., president of PCA, says "ultimatum" is too harsh a word, and that no threats have been made.
"I'd call it more of an alert," Keuth says. "What we're trying to say is things are changing. There's development that's going to occur there. And when that development comes, typically what happens is the new tenants start putting pressure on the city to clean up the area. Then the city's forced to make an ultimatum."
Shultz says that ultimatum might mischaracterize what the PCA delivered. "But it's true that we've stepped to the plate, and when you consider the failures of the past, I don't think there's any substitute for being clear."
What he's clear about is that because the Capitol Mall is in a designated redevelopment area, the city has the power of eminent domain to condemn properties that lie in the path of urban progress.
In the past quarter-century, the city has used that power to raze the old downtown and build the new one. Shultz says he expects, but hasn't yet asked, the city to drop that hammer on some parts of the Capitol Mall. He says the old Seventh Avenue Hotel, a haven for low-income people at Seventh Avenue and Washington Street, is in the PCA's plans for demolition.
But he says the PCA's posture toward the social-service agencies has been, "Why not be smart about it and plan ahead for what will be an inevitable situation?"
But some homeless advocates question the PCA's real aims. They recall that when St. Vincent de Paul sought the city's permission to replace its eyesore of a dining hall at Ninth Avenue and Madison Street with a smaller facility, the PCA lobbied against it. The proposed dining hall would have provided indoor queuing--a goal of the overlay district rules--and landscaping for the street.
But in a 1997 letter to David Richert, director of Phoenix's Planning Department, the late Barry Starr, then-president of the PCA, warned that St. Vincent de Paul's plans were "in direct conflict with the objectives and goals of the renewal efforts." The city denied St. Vincent de Paul's request for a zoning variance to build the proposed improvements, ruling that the facility didn't provide sufficient parking for its primarily walk-in customers.
"It's pretty clear that they really don't want us here," says Father John Dougherty, the young Catholic priest who runs Andre House. "All you have to do is look at their map. We're not even on their map."
The map in question accompanies the PCA's recent Heart of the City report, a glossy promotion for downtown development. Whether by oversight or wishful thinking, it depicts the five-block concentration of social services that exist between Seventh and 13th avenues south of Jefferson as a blank slate--no Andre House, no St. Vinnie's, no CASS shelter, or Downtown Learning Center, Interfaith Cooperative Ministries or county health clinic--nothing to stand in the way of a revitalization that nearly everyone agrees is long overdue.
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.
"If Goddard hadn't come along, we might still be arguing where to put this thing," says Orton. "But it happened because he was willing to put some political backbone into it."
Yet that hardly softened the fierceness of the debate. State legislators representing south and central Phoenix warned the city not to follow its usual pattern of dumping problems in south Phoenix, saying, in effect, that it was time for other parts of the city to share the burden.
"It was really a brilliant strategy," says Phoenix zoning attorney Jay Dushoff, who opposed locating the shelter on the shared front doorstep of the city and state and subsequently represented local businesses who unsuccessfully opposed extending a use permit for CASS. "Because it essentially challenged Terry to prove how liberal he really was. The point being, if you're a racist, you'll dump this in south Phoenix. If you're not, you'll put it north of the tracks."
It went north of the tracks.
Since then, city officials and downtown interests have occasionally floated the idea of moving the homeless to one or more city-owned sites near the river bottom, or farther west of downtown.
But Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza says, "That's simply not practical. The reality is that these facilities are incredibly hard to locate."
Given the not-in-my-backyard ruckus stirred up recently by the potential relocation of the state fair, it isn't difficult to imagine the furor that dispersing CASS would arouse.
"The reality," says Phoenix City Councilman Doug Lingner, who chairs the council's Housing and Neighborhoods subcommittee, "is that any time we start talking about moving these facilities, the NIMBY problem will be there."
City officials concede that fear of stirring it up is among the chief reasons the mall has evolved into a de facto management or containment district for homelessness.
"I don't think we can make it go away," says Rimsza. "The practical reality is that we need to focus on managing these areas so they aren't the blight, or that they aren't something that deters investment or creates security concerns for employees."
The city has done that in other neighborhoods by imposing restrictions preventing the massing of people one sees on Madison Street.
For example, the city's winter overflow shelter, in a warehouse on Watkins Street, located south of Interstate 17 along Seventh Avenue, doesn't permit walk-ins. People are bused there from a lot adjacent to the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall on Madison. And to receive $205,000 in federal block grant funds for its $5 million campus of services on Watkins Street, east of Seventh Avenue, which opened in 1994, St. Vincent de Paul promised the city that it would continue using Madison Street as its main dining hall so long as the CASS shelter remained in the area.
It doesn't take long on a hot September evening for the aroma of hot dogs and chili being served at Andre House to be smothered by the sour smell of sweat and unwashed clothes. As the first of several hundred indigent men and women file into this converted warehouse at 11th Avenue and Jackson Street, tray their meals and head to the long rows of tables and chairs, an ammonia stink fumes the room and stings the eyes. They've eaten more recently and more often than they've bathed.
Most had lunch at what everyone refers to as St. Vinnie's. Few, if any, had breakfast. A handful--usually those who work without pocket money during the day--haven't eaten since the previous night. Many will spend the night at CASS.
After a day of chasing shade, the beleaguered crowd seems more thirsty than hungry. Part of the stench in the room is the sickly half-sweet odor of dehydration. The men and women gulp down the first pour of juice and quickly lift their paper cups for seconds and thirds. Then, heads down, they dig in.
Few in the crowd of mostly white men--skins burned red or roasted a leathery rouge--are here to savor the food. Many of them eat quickly, then head out the door and circle back around the building for another pass at the steam table. A handful pause at the vestibule by the door that contains a table with devotional candles and a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to jot down a name on a yellow legal pad and light a candle.
"One of the nice things about being here," says Daniel Robinson, "is that it's about the only place you can just sit and relax and get out of the heat."
A thin black man with a wispy beard in his late 40s, Robinson has lived on and off the street since 1994. He says he has dinner at Andre House just about every one of the six nights of the week it's open, and lunch at St. Vinnie's every day. He avoids staying at CASS because he doesn't like the imposed schedule of having to get up and out by 7:30 a.m. And the head-to-toe barracks arrangement is a Petri dish of sick and coughing men. He prefers sleeping in empty lots around town.
"There are a lot of people out here who are what I'd call just passing through a bad phase of life," he says. "And I think maybe that's most of them. They just come and go. You could say I'm one of the ones who's out here because I want to be."
Experts have a difficult time pinning down what percentage of homeless people are capable, as Robinson is, of working, but simply don't.
Holleran and others say it's clearly a minority. He estimates that about a quarter of the homeless suffer from mental illness. A significant number of the balance have substance-abuse problems. Many of the homeless in the Capitol Mall suffer from both.
"I'm not a very religious or spiritual person," says Holleran, "but if people wind up homeless down here, it's safe to say that their families aren't functioning in some way."
Robinson says he has more or less drifted away from his family. "I've got plenty of family back on the East Coast," he says. "But I'm not good with people."
A sometime artist, he painted a mural in the family dining room at Andre House. He's trying to put together a studio with a friend and resume working. He eventually wants to retire to a log cabin in the mountains and have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to go into town and buy sculpture supplies. He wants to leave his work for his family, "so they can see what I've done and say, 'So that's what he was trying to do. That's what he was about.'"
In the meantime, the Darwinian world of downtown street life offers all he needs in the way of satisfactions and challenges.
"If you can get around the survival thing and learn to survive real quick, and learn how to make the best of a bad situation, you find there's a lot of fun, a lot of excitement on the street. We have a joke out here that sitting out there by St. Vinnie's at night is like looking at a big-screen TV."
It's a show that many of the area's business owners no longer want to see.
"It's very difficult to try and run a business here," says Ruth Harlan, co-owner with her husband, Les, of The Harlan Company, a heating, cooling and sheet-metal wholesaler that has been on Madison Street since the 1920s. "Customers are always asking why in the world we stay. But we own the building. If I were on a lease, I'd be out of here tomorrow."
She says that she and other business owners in the area feel besieged. Burglaries are constant. Customers have things stolen from vehicles. Waves of people use her property as a latrine. Tires are punctured by discarded syringes; fights, drug deals and prostitution are daily sights.
Jim Morlan, a neighbor of Harlan's who runs Electric Supply Incorporated and sits on the CASS board of directors, says that he and others are particularly troubled by the conditions surrounding what's known as the homeless post office, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and Madison.
"That's where you see a real concentration of people," he says. "They tend to wait for the office to open, and they are hanging about, and so it affects the area around it. The first week of the month, when food stamps and assistance checks arrive, is especially bad."
On most days, the sidewalk outside the post office is a gauntlet of infirm, insane, drugged-out and streetwise people. Early in the month, people can be seen swapping food stamps for crack and other drugs, or selling them for pocket change. Belongings are piled or stuffed into a train of shopping carts that runs nearly the full block length of the dingy gray building.
Daniel Robinson and others familiar with the street say that in addition to the black market that thrives there, the building's shaded north wall is one of the few in the area where the police don't bother them.
Tammy Bosse, who heads the Capitol Mall Association, says neighbors have complained about conditions around the building to the postal service, which contracts the post office operation to a local business. But nothing has happened.
"All we're trying to do is get them to require that the place be maintained as a clean, safe building," Bosse says. "We also want them to look at maybe handling the mail deliveries in a different way, so that you don't have people hanging around like that all day long."
A postal-service official who is new to the job of overseeing the contract says she's unaware of any complaints. However, she acknowledges that similar problems occur at all of the post offices around the state that hold general delivery mail.
Morlan and others say the meanness and dereliction of the scene reflects the control that predators among the dispossessed have over the area.
"As much as these predators make life difficult for those of us running businesses here," he says, "they make life even more difficult for the homeless."
Nancy Spencer of St. Vincent de Paul agrees. "There's no question that there's a mean spirit down there now that didn't used to be there."
Sergeant Robert Jones, who heads the Phoenix Police Department's neighborhood response unit for the Capitol Mall, attributes the change to the rise of drug problems in the area.
Although Phoenix PD's informal count of the downtown homeless population shows a decline--from a peak of about 1,200 in 1989 to 400 to 600 today--that drop has coincided with a dramatic influx of hard-core drugs and predators.
Officer Bernie Delaney, who has been working the area for about four years, says that as bad as the crime statistics are for the area, they don't begin to measure crimes against the homeless.
"They almost never report anything. They usually just say they'll handle it themselves," he says. "Stabbings are pretty common--with almost anything sharp--mostly because most of these people are too poor to own guns."
Jones says that the real problem for police in the area is that they are being asked to tend social problems that defy simply cleaning up the street.
Accompanying Officer Delaney and his partner Craig Merrill on their patrol of the Madison Street area, it was evident that most of their work involved keeping people moving, checking IDs, waking homeless men sleeping beneath the Seventh Avenue bridge, and occasionally trying to find lodging for people who appear too vulnerable to be on the street. Efforts akin to drawing a stick through sand. And the police know it.
"We did a cleanup in March," says Jones. "These officers were out there cutting weeds and hauling trash with the neighborhood and everyone, and a week later we were back at ground zero. You look at it and say, 'What can we do here? Who can we help? Who can't we help, and what's the answer?' It's one of the few places in the city where we have no sense of progress."
Bad as this situation is, homeless experts and many of the area's social-service providers stress the practicality of having concentrated services.
"Concentration is certainly much cheaper," says Mary Orton. "One of the things we always said to the PCA was that if we're going to decentralize, you're not only going to have to find us the site and build us the building, you're going to have to guarantee us that the increased operating costs are going to be taken care of. And that may be prohibitive."
Shultz and Keuth say the PCA is willing to lobby local governments for additional outlays. But budgets for homeless services are notoriously tight. Vic Hudenko, the state homeless coordinator at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, points out that the federal government, which provided 29,000 blankets to Arizona last winter, won't be providing any this year. At the moment, he estimates a shortfall of 24,000 blankets. DES is looking for additional funds to make up the difference.
Money is not the only issue involved in decentralization. Annette Stein, director of Maricopa County's health clinic for the homeless (which sees 3,000 to 4,000 patients a year and hundreds more with a traveling outreach van), stresses that, as grim as it is, the downtown concentration has certain practicalities.
"How far can some of these people walk, or take a bus?" she says. "And do you really want them traveling long distances if they're sick or have high fevers?"
Stein and others point out that mentally ill people have trouble following basic directions.
"They need to be walked through just about everything," says Dr. Adele O'Sullivan, the full-time physician at the clinic.
Stein recounts, "I can just tell you that when we had the AHCCCS [Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides health care to the poor] office right down the street--just a two-minute walk--we'd tell people to go sign up. And somehow they never made it."
The state has since stationed an AHCCCS worker in the building to enroll indigent patients.
Stein and other social-service providers say the diverse needs of downtown's homeless--food, lodging, health care, job counseling, transportation and more--demand what she characterizes as an integrated approach.
"None of it is separate. That's why we have a very comprehensive look at the homeless issue here. We don't just look at medical needs. We have social workers here. We have a psychiatrist here. A substance-abuse counselor here. It's a multidisciplinary team. That's why it's so important for all of us to be together. We can't feed them. They have to eat. We can't house them. But they need a place to stay. Besides, our clients don't drive."
Kay Martin, who runs the Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless out of the First Presbyterian Church, at Fourth Avenue and Monroe, says many homeless people have either lost their ID or had it stolen. CASS subcontracts with Martin, who is known on the street as the "ID Lady," to track down crucial records and secure new IDs for its residents.
She says that people coming out of the prisons often don't have any identification. So they can't work immediately. Often, the IDs taken from them when they were arrested are never returned. She says it's easier to establish someone's identity once they've been in prison, because the state DOC provides documentation that the Department of Motor Vehicles will accept as proof. But for other cases, securing ID can involve anywhere from three to six weeks of waiting for birth certificates and other documents to arrive.
During that wait, says Martin, people who lack IDs can't get jobs or housing, and are likelier to be arrested for trespassing much more quickly if they're stopped.
Several formerly homeless people who had been assisted by Martin say that having a service like hers within easy walking distance of food and shelter is essential. They and other homeless people looking to get off the street say that any changes in the Capitol Mall would have to assure a balance of services, including job counseling, food, housing, transportation and far greater access to substance-abuse treatment.
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.
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."
He and others point out that some of the questions being raised by the PCA about the concentration of social services in the Capitol Mall will require some government answers.
City Councilman Phil Gordon says, "One of the problems--and I'll take some of the blame--is that there really isn't a big advocate up here for the homeless. There just isn't a champion."
Gordon acknowledges that conditions may change as more homeless people are pushed out of the downtown area into other parts of the city.
"What I see happening there is the homeless populations and problems are just being pushed north into my district. That sounds parochial. But you ask anyone--the police or Neighborhood Services--and they're moving north."
Gordon says the past year has brought a growing number of homeless people into Encanto Park and farther north to Sunnyslope.
"No one is looking at this in a holistic manner," Gordon says. "It's basic physics. If you push somewhere, it's got to go somewhere else."
Gordon and Councilman Lingner say the City Council has had limited involvement in Capitol Mall discussions and that the PCA is leading the effort.
Councilman Cody Williams, whose district contains the Capitol Mall area, sees the PCA as the "visible mouthpiece" for the issue--"a necessary catalyst."
He adds, "I'm not sure that what's being discussed or portrayed now will be the thing that becomes the final strategy and action plan. They represent sort of the extreme position, which is a position I've often found leads to a good compromise."
For the time being, the mayor is deferring to the PCA:
"Our job is a support role for the PCA," Rimsza says. "Our job is to not be a leader in this. The PCA has been the right leader because it's been able to pull the state, the city, the service organizations, the private sector folks together. It's like downtown. The city's taken a big role downtown. But I wouldn't call us the leader. I think that the downtown alliance is the leader."
This isn't news to the players struggling to solve the homeless dilemma in the Capitol Mall. Yet developers and homeless advocates alike agree that successful revitalization--one that includes all the current residents of the area--will ultimately demand leadership from more than just the PCA.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.