East Lot for Phoenix Homeless Closing May 15

After months of Phoenix and Maricopa County officials promising that the East Lot will remain open indefinitely, the asphalt parking lot that's served as a de facto overflow shelter for up to 400 men and women in downtown Phoenix is officially closing.

"The East Lot's last night of providing low demand shelter will be the 14th (closing the morning of the 15th)," Lindsey Roberts, Communications Manager of the Central Arizona Shelter Services, writes to New Times.

CASS--which also runs a 470 bed shelter on the Human Services Campus across the street--has operated the East Lot since April 2013, at the behest of the Phoenix Police Department, who saw opening it as an opportunity to keep both the neighborhood and hundreds of homeless men and women safe. Though philosophically no one thought it was a good idea, crime rates dropped dramatically, and many people suddenly had a relatively safe place to sleep at night. (The CASS-operated Men's Overflow Shelter, the original "temporary solution," was at capacity every night, and had been for years.)

When news spread that the Men's Overflow Shelter was closing, people began questioning the future of the adjacent East Lot. CASS has said in the past that it only has the budgetary means to continue running the East Lot through mid-May.

See also: -Homeless in Phoenix's East Lot Face Uncertain Future Because of Budget Shortfall -As Overflow Shelter in Downtown Phoenix Closes, New Homeless Plan Emerges

At a community forum in late February, however, county and state officials promised they would begin more actively looking into low-demand shelter options and that they would not allow the parking lot to close until an alternative was in place.

As we've written about in the past, a small group comprised of individuals from the city, county, state, and private sector met almost daily to hash out a plan for indoor shelter before the worst of the summer heat set in. (They simultaneously worked to acquire $2.5 million for rapid re-housing programs and are accepting RFPs for the money.) With less than three weeks until the East Lot closes, the details of this new plan are firming up by the day.

New Times spoke with Laura DiTroia, Director of Programs for the Lodestar Day Resource Center--the sort of programmatic arm of the Human Services Campus--about those plans. Here's what we know so far:

For six months, beginning on Friday, May 15, two buildings on the campus, the LDRC day room and the dining room at St. Vincent De Paul, will open as a new low-demand shelter. DiTroia explains that women, and elderly or disabled men, will sleep in St. Vincent De Paul, and rest of the men--who make up the majority of those staying in the East Lot--will stay in the LDRC.

The East Lot population has fluctuated between 375-400 individuals in the last few weeks, meaning that not everyone will get indoor shelter. (Collectively, the two buildings have space for 250 people.)

"We're looking at alternatives on the campus," DiTroia explains, "but we're still navigating that." It's looking more and more likely that they will use a section of the lawn near the LDRC entrance as an immediate solution, and she expects a final decision to be reached by the end of this week. (The area will be cordoned off, covered with a canopy, and all individuals will be given a mat to sleep on, and have access to indoor restrooms.)

So who will get those coveted indoor spaces? For the first few weeks she expects they'll operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, "but we're looking at ways to prioritize the most vulnerable people."

The Welcome Center on the Human Services Campus, the coordinated entry point for services on the campus, uses what's called the VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool) to do an initial assessment of an individual's needs and relative vulnerability.

DiTroia predicts that they'll use an individual's score to help prioritize which individuals get to sleep inside but adds that it's possible other organizations on the campus will open their doors at night too. Plus, once the rapid-re-housing money and 270 Section 8 vouchers from the city of Phoenix kick in, the overall population of people needing emergency shelter is expected to go down. "Our goal is to end homelessness," DiTroia emphasizes.

Since the announcement came a few weeks ago that these buildings were opening, there's been concern and questions about certain details of the plan. New Times asked DiTroia about some of them:

Who can stay there The goal is to mirror the daytime rules and culture of the Human Services Campus at night. If you have a campus ID, you can come in. (There's an appeals process if you get kicked off the campus.) And contrary to myth, sex offenders are allowed on campus--they're just not allowed in CASS--so they will not be left out of this new low-demand shelter. Each person will be allowed a small overnight bag and will need to check their other belongings in Bag-N-Tag.

Segregated Sexes There was a lot of debate and discussion about what to do with couples, but in the end, those organizing the operation decided to split men and women. "Cohabitation in close quarters can be hard to monitor, and we just want to keep things as simple as possible," DiTroia says.

Pets As for animals, right now only service dogs will be allowed to spend the night, but DiTroia says they're working with local animal-centered groups to figure out a better solution. (The Human Service Campus is also talking with Arizona State University about setting up a teaching Veterinary Hospital on or near the campus in the future._

Restroom Facilities DiTroia says one of their goals is to avoid using port-a-potties--"We're not expecting 400 people to need to use the bathroom at the same time"--but the LDRC is remodeling the men's restroom so it can better accommodate a 24/7 flow of people. And like all things with this operation, they're prepared to be flexible and to change how they do things as problems arise--meaning, if there's an obvious bathroom shortage, they'll bring in portable ones.

Hours of Operation At least in the beginning, the hours of operation are slated to be 6:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.--wake up time will be 5:30. The early hours, she explains, are so that St Vincent De Paul has time to set up before serving breakfast at 7, and the LDRC can be cleaned and readied for its 7:30 opening time.

Staff/Security Staff will consist of 11 people with a behavioral health background, one shelter manager, a contracted EMT, and a contracted crisis-management specialist. There will be six people on duty at all times: two staff in each facility, plus an EMT and a crisis specialist. ("We're hiring," DiTroia says enthusiastically.) They are still in the process of finalizing security plans, though for at least the first few weeks she thinks they are likely to have contracted security (or off-duty police) to help smooth out the transition from the East Lot "party culture" to the campus culture.

Funding CASS has said in the past that it spends $300,000 annually on operating the MOS/East Lot, and though the final budget for this new indoor operation is yet to be finalized, it's likely to cost about the same.

And the biggest question of all, DiTroia explains, is always about what will happen in six months.

"I don't have an answer exactly," she says, "but we have the next six months to figure it out."

The agencies on the campus are analyzing recent assessment data and shifting to a new computer-based tool that allows a case manager to overlay an individual's needs and eligibility for housing, hopefully improving the process of finding people appropriate shelter. She says they're looking into whether they need to build a permanent low-demand shelter, or whether, as some folks like to say, "We can house our way out of this."

With a little more than two weeks until opening night, DiTroia and others have no shortage of things to organize and problems to solve: the flow of traffic, and how that will work with Bag-N-Tag; the number of mats they need to order; hiring and training all the staff; explaining the changes to those who use the East Lot.

"It's certainly exciting," she says, "and I just hope that the people who are putting a lot of energy into this continue to be part of the change to find people housing."

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