Does Downtown Phoenix Need Another Homeless Shelter?

Every afternoon, after the lunch crowd finishes up and leaves the St. Vincent de Paul dining room on the Human Services Campus near downtown Phoenix, a small group of volunteers starts breaking down the setup. The tables are washed and then rolled to a corner, the blue plastic chairs are stacked and arranged to form dividers in parts of the room, the floor is swept and mopped.

After that's done, the volunteers head to a storage room in the back of the building filled with thin blue mats and begin loading them onto dollies. They make dozens of trips, wheeling well over 200 mats into the dining room. The mats are arranged in tight rows on the floor so as to provide a sleeping space for as many homeless men as possible. Mats are similarly arranged in a separate, smaller room for women, and a few are more spaciously placed in a section of the dining room reserved for those who are physically disabled.

The transformation from dining room to emergency overnight shelter is usually complete by 3 p.m. Meanwhile, a small line forms outside the gate that marks the eastern entrance to the campus. The doors to SVDP won't open until 7:30 p.m., but by 4 p.m., the crowd often swells past 50. Some stand and talk with those near them in line, others sit on the ground and read. At least a few people lean against the fence and doze.

Once the doors open, it takes about an hour for shelter employees to check everyone in. Mats are claimed, blankets laid out. "Lights out" comes at around 9:30.

Wake-up is at 5 a.m., and by 7 the mats are put away, the tables and chairs back in their spots, and breakfast is served. After lunchtime, the cycle begins again. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, 200 to 275 homeless men and women spend the night here.

No one is pretending that sleeping on a thin mat in a crowded room is ideal, but compared to the situation about two years ago, when the closest thing Phoenix had to an emergency shelter was a rodent and bedbug-infested parking lot across the street from the Human Services Campus, this is clearly a step up. 
The question is: Is an improvised overnight shelter enough?

"St. Vincent de Paul is not a shelter," says Amy McMullen of the Maricopa Alliance for Shelter and Housing (MASH). "It was a baby step, but they need to keep moving."

McMullen says she often hears people talk about how great it would be to build a low-demand shelter on or near the Human Services Campus. The main shelter in the area, the Central Arizona Shelter Service (CASS), doesn't meet the need — not only is the 470-person shelter at capacity every night, but it has historically maintained strict work, behavior, and sobriety policies. By contrast, a so-called low-demand (or emergency) shelter asks little of its guests beyond requiring that they don't pose a public nuisance or danger. It's not going to require that a client be sober, do chores, present proper identification, et cetera.

"It seems like the powers that be can never get their act together to build a low-demand shelter," McMullen continues. "They thought throwing housing-voucher money at it would solve it, but it's not. There's always going to be new people coming into homelessness."

What McMullen and others in her group envision is a CASS-like facility: a shelter with real beds, showers, lockers, enough bathrooms, and a modicum of privacy. And with more than 200 people crowding SVDP each night and many others sleeping in the streets, in camps by the canal or railroad tracks, or in places like Papago Park – it's not hard to see why they'd want one.

McMullen says she understands that the so-called funders' collaborative – the group of representatives from the state, county, city, and nonprofit sector that meets weekly to discuss shelter operations and raise money for rapid re-housing efforts – is focused on getting people into permanent homes. It's a noble pursuit, she says, but it can't be a singular priority.

"Pretending that this low-demand-shelter need is going to go away is ridiculous. They're just kind of putting things off." — Amy McMullen, Maricopa Alliance for Shelter and Housing

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"Pretending that this low-demand-shelter need is going to go away is ridiculous," she says. "They're just kind of putting things off, putting things off."

To those in the funders' collaborative, however, the situation isn't so cut and dry.

"At this point, I don't think there's really any evidence to support building a new low-demand shelter or even acquiring a new facility," says Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department. "The number of people using [the SVDP shelter] is trending down in the right direction, and no one is being turned away. We've not been operating it that long to declare that's where the numbers are going to stay, but that supports not doing anything like building a new shelter, and to keep monitoring the numbers."

According to Liggett, about 250 people stayed in SVDP every night in November – the high was 278 and the low was 218. (The numbers tend to fluctuate based on weather and time of the month, because many receive benefit checks on the first.)

To Liggett, who has been the public face of the county's year-and-a-half-long rapid-rehousing effort, there are better ways to serve the homeless than building a permanent low-demand shelter.

He sees the way forward as a three-pronged approach: First, continue to house as many people as possible; second, maximize the efficiency of existing shelters across the Valley and reduce the barriers to entry; and third, continue to engage with and collect data about the homeless population to help inform future actions.

Since the shelter opened in May 2015, through October of this year, it's served 10,627 unique individuals, and as of the end of November, 611 people have been placed in housing.

"Right now, we're taking it month by month," he says about the emergency shelter operation at SVDP, the contract for which is set to expire in February. "I think that after the first of the year, we're going to have to make a decision about whether we have to continue [it] for some period of time. I believe [SVDP is] prepared to continue if there's the need, but I for one am not feeling pressure to make that decision right now." 
Part of the problem is cost. Operating the SVDP shelter costs about $40,000 per month, plus another $10,000 for overnight emergency medical technicians, and a few thousand more for various other things like extra security and extending the hours of bag and tag, the free storage space for those staying in the shelter to store their belongings overnight. Liggett says they're working to reduce some of these costs, but that no one can guarantee that the funding will be available long term.

McMullen is not dissuaded by the current budget constraints.

"There's always funding available. I think the money can be found, I really do," she says. "I think we need more engagement with the business folks, because I think you can get enough people to support this type of facility."

It is worth mentioning that the funders' collaborative was able to cobble together $2.5 million last year to get the emergency shelter and rapid-rehousing program going, and they've managed to sustain both for a year and a half.

"It's a matter of will," McMullen says. "When I hear people say we're doing all we can – we're not. We're accepting a status quo that shouldn't be."

But the question of whether downtown Phoenix needs a permanent low-demand shelter is a tricky one. Even setting aside the funding issue, each side of the debate makes a compelling argument.

To delve deeper into the issue, New Times spoke with 10 people who work with this population every day, either on the Human Services Campus or through policy work, to get their thoughts about the need for a permanent low-demand shelter. Interestingly, yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers overall were not black and white.

But before hearing what they have to say, it's important to explain how the current situation and debate came to be.


When the Human Services Campus opened in 2004, its CASS-run shelter quickly reached capacity every night, leaving many who used services on the campus during the day to sleep on the street or in small makeshift camps.

There had been talk of finding more indoor space, but little action was taken until the summer of 2005, when a heat wave killed 30 homeless men and women in the Valley during a two-month period. The county agreed to let CASS lease a former county-records warehouse across the street from the campus and use it as extra indoor space for people to sleep.

The building, which came to be known as the Men's Overflow Shelter, or MOS, was supposed to be a temporary solution. But soon enough, CASS was running a low-demand shelter for about 200 men – at times packing up to 300 into the building.

Though the MOS was better than the street, the conditions inside the squat, largely windowless building were far from optimal. The ventilation wasn't very good, and the place reeked of urine, mildew, and body odor. As New Times wrote in March 2015, "It's the kind of place that smells so bad staff will ask you two or three times if you're sure you really want to go inside."

But on the plus side, it helped get people off the street — and ideally it got them to begin the process of ending their homelessness by engaging with CASS staff.

In 2013, eight years after the MOS opened, the Phoenix Police Department asked CASS if they would consider accommodating more people in an adjacent parking lot.

Mark Holleran, CEO of CASS, says the organization had rejected that move in the past but decided to take the step because crime and other problems like vandalism and litter were on the rise in the neighborhood. In April 2013, they opened what became known as the East Lot — essentially an overflow shelter for the overflow shelter.   
The crime rate fell, police were called to the area less often, and neighbors stopped complaining about human waste, open drug use, and violence on the street. But many of the problems were now just contained inside the fenced parking lot, which some took to calling "the cage."

In early 2015, after the fire marshal enumerated multiple safety violations in the MOS, the county and CASS decided that fixing the dilapidated building to bring it up to code wasn't a good investment: The MOS had to close.

"Philosophically, the MOS isn't a good idea or a solution," Holleran said at the time. "I'm all for it going away, as long as we have a plan to replace it."

But there was no plan. What's more, CASS's lease on the East Lot was set to expire in June, and many worried it wouldn't be renewed. As the April 1, 2015, closing date neared, media attention increased. Local activists formed the Maricopa Alliance for Shelter and Housing and began holding community meetings and protests to pressure local leaders to take action.

Though the Human Services Department's Bruce Liggett made a public promise that the county would not let hundreds of people "be put out on the street," March 31 came and went without much fanfare. The MOS closed and the numbers in the East Lot swelled.

But behind the scenes, Liggett and other representatives from the county, city, state, and nonprofit sector were meeting regularly to figure out what to do.

After weeks of meetings and strategizing, they announced two initiatives: a rapid-rehousing program – for which the planners, who began calling themselves the funders' collaborative, raised $2.5 million and obtained 275 housing vouchers from the city of Phoenix– and a plan to turn the day room of the Lodestar Day Resource Center (LDRC) and the dining room of St. Vincent de Paul into temporary overnight shelters.

Signaling a philosophical shift in how Phoenix and Maricopa County intended to approach homelessness, the shelter would be staffed with professionals trained to engage clients and help them navigate the complicated system of services offered on the campus. (In September of this year, SVDP took over the operation and moved all of the shelter beds into its facility, keeping the same staff and the same philosophy.)

According to everyone involved, it has been a success. Whereas in the days of the MOS and East Lot, there was little, if any, formal effort to help people end their homelessness, it's now the top priority.

In conjunction with the campus Welcome Center, everyone staying in the shelter is given the same coordinated assessment tool, the Vulnerability Index: Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (known colloquially as the VI-SPDAT), to help determine their specific needs and identify the proper pathway to get them housed or out of homelessness. (Example: Do they need permanent supportive housing or just rent assistance for a few months and help finding a job?)

Liggett often speaks of how the VI-SPDAT led the county to discover that about 20 percent of people who arrive at the shelter do not need to enter the system. Many just need help paying a utility bill or buying a bus ticket so they can stay with family or friends in other cities, he says, explaining that diversion is a good policy because it reduces the burden on the shelter system and prevents individuals from becoming homeless. The VI-SPDAT also helps caseworkers identify the most vulnerable within the greater homeless population and figure out what type of housing might be appropriate.

"Components of the system are starting to work much better, but we still have a ways to go," Liggett says, adding that before we start talking about building a new low-demand shelter, he wants to figure out what extra resources and capabilities exist and make everything more efficient.

For example, he and others in the funders' collaborative are working with CASS and other shelters across the valley to help house some of their long-term, more capable clients in order to free up space for those whose need is more dire.

"No one wants to see people who are seeking a safe place indoors not to be able to. But at this point, I don't think we can commit to that always being available." — Bruce Liggett, Maricopa County Human Services Department

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"CASS is [also] moving in the direction of having fewer rules and fewer requirements, and we've been working with them on that. People are using CASS now who formerly would not have been allowed in," Liggett says. The goal is for it to become the low-demand shelter on-site.

"We've also explored expanding some existing shelters — not just in downtown Phoenix but also in the East Valley," he says. Because in a world of limited funds, adding capacity to existing shelters is more fiscally responsible (and more of a possibility) than building a new shelter.

Asked about his now-infamous comment that they would find an alternative to the MOS and East Lot because they wouldn't let "people to be put out on the street," Liggett pauses.

"No one wants to see people who are seeking a safe place indoors not to be able to," he says. "But at this point, I don't think we can commit to that always being available."


Liggett and Amy McMullen from MASH aren't the only ones with strong opinions. New Times interviewed others close to the situation to see what they thought about building a new low-demand shelter.

After the jump: what they told us. (The Phoenix Police Department declined to comment.)

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser