Maricopa County's Fight Against Homelessness — and How It Might Succeed

Before the overflow shelter spaces opened, 200 to 300 people slept in a downtown parking lot every night.EXPAND
Before the overflow shelter spaces opened, 200 to 300 people slept in a downtown parking lot every night.
Miriam Wasser

Only days before the emergency overnight shelter in downtown Phoenix was scheduled to start phasing out services ahead of an October shutdown, a group of local government and nonprofit-sector leaders have managed to keep it open — at least for now.

The space, which opened in May 2015, is not a traditional shelter. It spans two separate buildings — the Lodestar Day Resource Center and the hallways and boardrooms of St. Vincent De Paul — on the Human Services Campus and includes an outdoor area under a shade structure called the "sandlot."

For the most part, accommodations are far from luxurious: People sleep on thin foam mats lined up in rows on the linoleum floors. But it's a huge step up from the dilapidated Men's Overflow Shelter and the adjacent, rodent-infested parking lot where people slept in the past.

Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department, says the arrangement is still technically in the works, but he expects the deal to keep the part of the emergency shelter open through February.

"We at the county had been the only ones funding the overflow shelter since July 1, and we were going to begin phasing out services," Liggett explains. But then leaders of St. Vincent de Paul came forward earlier this week with a proposal for how they could keep their part of the shelter open for less money: In short, by subsidizing some of the costs and shifting all of the beds into one building, the overall staffing and operational cost should be much lower. 

After a few rounds of talks, Liggett and his counterparts at the Arizona Department of Housing, the Arizona Department of Economic Security, and Valley of the Sun United Way agreed to split the cost. Liggett says each agency will likely contribute about $10,000 per month through February.

For reasons having mostly to do with funding and organizational capacity, Lodestar will not be continuing its portion of the shelter. But David Bridge, managing director of the Day Resource Center, assures New Times that his organization will support the transition and continue to make its space available if an emergency weather situation arises.

Liggett says he doesn't know what will happen come February. But he and others who are invested in fighting homelessness in Phoenix have reason to be encouraged by the progress they have made in the 15 months since the emergency shelter opened.

He considers the act of providing a climate-controlled safe space as a gateway to engagement. And the data the county has gathered over the past year-plus backs him up.

As of June 20, nearly 7,000 people had spent at least one night at the emergency shelter. Of those, 491 have been moved into long-term housing. Another 52 people will be placed in the coming weeks, and at least 650 more are at various stages in the process.

Moving forward, Liggett says, the focus will be “housing the people who are the most vulnerable — the chronically homeless, those with disabilities, veterans — and use our precious but limited resources in a targeted way. We really want to be working with people who are most in need of housing."

Brian Spicker, chief programing director of Valley of the Sun United Way, concurs.

"What's really been a game changer is the fact that the private and public sector came together for a long-term strategy and commitment to solving homelessness," Spicker says. "We're not completely out of the woods, but the good news is that we are placing more people today than new people are showing up to the shelter every day."

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Prior to May 2015, many of those who couldn't find shelter beds slept on the floor of the Men's Overflow Shelter (MOS) or congregated in the so-called East Lot beside it. For years, as many as 200 men would stay in the MOS, while another 300 men and women passed the night on the paved lot outside every night.

Every afternoon, hundreds lined up, hoping to claim a spot on the floor of the crumbling Men's Overflow Shelter (in background) and in the adjacent parking lot.EXPAND
Every afternoon, hundreds lined up, hoping to claim a spot on the floor of the crumbling Men's Overflow Shelter (in background) and in the adjacent parking lot.
Miriam Wasser

The common perception was that denizens of the MOS and East Lot were sex offenders, violent criminals, severely mentally ill, and/or drug addicts – the kind of people who either struggle in typical shelter settings or are denied entry in the first place. But no one really knew, because no one was making the effort to find out.

"Back then, the myth surrounding this population was that we couldn't ask them their names, we certainly couldn't assess them, we needed police at all times, and that they wouldn't engage" with case managers, Liggett says. "And yet, we've found huge numbers engaging, and we've made so many [housing] placements."

The data the county has collected over the past year shows that 17 percent of the people who sought emergency shelter have turned out not to need permanent placement.

"You'd be surprised how many people just need a bus ticket to a relative's house or help paying this month's rent," Liggett says. "They don't even have to enter the system."

The data also indicates that just over half of the people who came through the shelter had been homeless for about a year, while 18 percent were "chronically homeless" — a term for people who have been homeless consecutively for more a year or who have experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

The chronically homeless tend to belong to the most vulnerable segment of the general homeless population: the severely mentally ill, elderly, or disabled. Not surprisingly, then, the county's statistics show that 18 percent of the people who came through the emergency shelter qualify for permanent supportive housing — meaning they'll require aid and services indefinitely. But 56 percent qualified for "rapid rehousing."

Liggett says the value of the data cannot be overstated. Instead of what many have called a Band-Aid approach to homelessness – simply providing the bare minimum to get people through the night – using data to guide operations has brought efficiency to the system.

"It's about getting the right solutions for the right number in need," Liggett says. "Just think of where we've come in the 15 months since we opened."

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The awful conditions of the MOS and East Lot had been the status quo for years and were largely ignored by the media and the public until early 2015, when the state fire marshal declared the MOS unfit for habitation.

As it became clear the county had no plan for the hundreds of people who were displaced, public protests led to increased media coverage. The outcry culminated in a town-hall meeting, during which Liggett and Mike Trailor, director of the Arizona Department of Housing, called the MOS and East Lot "inhumane," and promised to find a solution.

In the weeks that followed, representatives from the county, state, city, and private sector met daily to organize an alternative. Having assembled the beginnings of a plan to create a safer, cleaner, indoor overflow shelter — one that was staffed by case workers, not off-duty police officers — Liggett and others leading the charge decided it was time for Maricopa County to overhaul its approach to homelessness.

A emergency shelter employee sets up sleeping mats on the floor of St. Vincent de Paul.EXPAND
A emergency shelter employee sets up sleeping mats on the floor of St. Vincent de Paul.
Miriam Wasser

They didn't want to build a new overflow shelter and have done with it. They wanted to put people in homes, permanently

The group, which began calling itself the Funders Collaborative, managed to secure $2.5 million for that housing effort plus an additional 250 housing vouchers from the City of Phoenix, allowing them to officially adopt a "Housing First" approach to ending homelessness. As the term implies, "Housing First" holds that the first and most important thing a homeless individual needs is a home.

When put in practice, the concept has been widely successful in cities and counties nationwide, most famously in Utah.

It also appears to be working in Phoenix.

The number of people staying in the shelter has been trending downward. "Every week, the shelter is seeing an average of 28 new people. Imagine what it would look like if we didn't house those 500 people," Liggett says.

That's not to say the metro area is on its way to putting an end to all incidences of homelessness. In fact, the homeless population here has fluctuated only slightly over the past three years. (According to Maricopa County data Liggett provided to New Times, there were 5,918 homeless individuals in 2014; 5,631 in 2015; and 5,702 in 2016.)

"All national goals are around ending chronic homelessness," Liggett clarifies. "No one is setting out to say we're going to eliminate every episode of homelessness. There never was a commitment that everybody who was occasionally homeless would have a place to sleep."

But with the extended lifespan of the overflow shelter, Liggett and others have more time to chip away at the problem.

See a graphic depiction of the county's progress:


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