Homeless in Phoenix's East Lot Face Uncertain Future Because of Budget Shortfall

As the closing of the Men's Overflow Shelter makes headlines, another more frightening countdown looms: the day the Central Arizona Shelter Services runs out of money for the East Lot, the parking lot where 300-400 homeless men and women sleep every night.

As it stands, CASS only has funds to keep it open until mid-to-late May. Barring any emergency action, it won't receive more money for the lot until July, the start of the new fiscal year.

Last year it cost CASS $900,000 to operate the MOS and East Lot. It's a sum of money that many activists find appalling--"people are upset that nearly a million dollars is going to crummy shelter and a parking lot," explains Amy McMullen, co-founder of the Maricopa Alliance for Shelter and Housing.

She has a point; if you've ever been down there it's hard to imagine that much money goes into it. So where does the $900,000 go?

Most is spent on what CASS CEO Mark Holleran calls "security in the broad sense." The organization pays two off-duty police officers to be there from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., a few staff members, and a part-time caseworker. In addition, it has to pay people to clean the area every day and for utilities and pest control. Holleran explains that CASS can't just dip into other parts of its overall budget because much of the money received is earmarked for specific programs and services.

See also: -Huge Homeless Overflow Shelter Closing, and County Has No Plan for Displaced Men -Maricopa County Homeless Advocates Demand Immediate Improvements in East Lot

The East Lot may just be a patch of asphalt surrounded by a fence, and it may be a far cry from a desirable place to sleep--critics call it "an inhumane cage"--but according to those who remember what the area was like before it opened, the lot has been a positive addition. Albeit a controversial one.

After it opened in April 2013, crime dropped dramatically in the area, says Jeffrey Alexander, commander of the Central City Police Precinct. Fewer 911 calls are made to report violence, drugs, garbage, and human feces and urination. The local community certainly feels safer, says Alexander, and he suspects the people who sleep in the lot do too.

"I get that the East Lot isn't nice to look at--seeing homeless people sleeping on the ground together in a contained area is not pretty," Alexander says, but "I would rather them be homeless in that location than be homeless elsewhere on the street."

His logic is that the drug and violence problems in the lot still would exist if people slept under a bridge or out by the train tracks: "If in the East Lot a woman screams and gets attacked, there's an officer within feet of her."

The something-is-better-than-nothing argument is hard to dispute, especially when involved parties are actively looking for better alternatives. A group of relevant officials from government agencies and CASS are traveling to Seattle this week to learn about a successful low-demand shelter model.

Meantime, however, "there has to be some interim place where the homeless population can go to feel safe at night," Alexander says. And local grassroots organizations are stepping up, trying to make the situation more livable.

Last week MASH sent a letter to CASS and other government officials demanding such things as safe access to drinking water, a hand-washing station, and that the organization service the portable toilets more often. Some of these demands were met--a four-sink hand-washing station and a new drinking-water spigot were installed this week--but according to Holleran, some of the requests were already in place. He said the toilets already are serviced six days a week and that the lot is swept every day--New Times can confirm seeing both of these things happen.

Holleran is all for improving conditions at the East Lot, but, he cautions, "whatever we do [there], somebody has to pay for that." What he means is that the amount of money spent on the East Lot correlates directly with how long it can remain open. It's the sort of trade-off in which neither outcome is desirable.

"I'm not panicked," he adds. "We've got another couple months to figure this out, and I remain optimistic. There's been a broader community-based discussion, and people understand better the ramifications of the parking lot just going away."

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