Homeless Won't Be "Put in the Streets," Maricopa County Vows

Remember the $2.5 million secured by state and county agencies earlier this year to house 250 homeless individuals? There are plenty of rumors floating around social media that the money is not being used properly or that no one has been placed.

But Bruce Liggett, director of the county Human Services Department, insists that neither claim is true.

Liggett says it’s also not true that come November 15, when the six-month contract that turned the Lodestar Day Resource Center and St. Vincent de Paul buildings on the Human Services Campus into temporary emergency or overflow shelters expires, hundreds of homeless people will have have nowhere to go.

“I don’t know why [certain individuals] are saying that,” he says. “It certainly isn’t helpful to say these people are going to be put in the streets,” he says. “We feel a responsibility for these people, as we have in the past, and we’re going to make sure these people have a place to sleep at night.”

Liggett declines to say whether the county and the LDRC will decide to renew the contract, but he acknowledges that the need still will be there in a few months, and he promises that there will be some sort of emergency shelter option for the homeless.

Others close to the situation speculate that the contract will be extended.

Ever since news that the county was shutting down the Men’s Overflow Shelter caused community panic and a public outcry, officials from the city, state, county, and various community partners have worked to set up the LDRC shelter, and to secure funding and contracts for a massive rapid re-housing effort. 

"We spent a lot of the last few months doing significant prep work to get these [housing initiatives] going,” he says. “The [rapid re-housing] placements are picking up now and are expected to accelerate.”

(Rapid re-housing is a type of supportive housing that typically gives a person rent assistance for a set length of time while case managers work with the person to find employment and/or other sources of entitlement benefits. The goal is to wean a person off assistance and have him or her become financially self-sufficient.)
So just how many people have been placed in homes?

Excluding other community-partner housing initiatives and funds, or placements made by Central Arizona Shelter Services and other nonprofits, 15 people staying in the LDRC have been placed in designated rapid re-housing apartments since July. Another 16 should be moving into housing this week and hopefully another dozen by the end of the month.

Liggett recognizes that these numbers don’t sound impressive, but he explains that they don’t paint an accurate picture of what’s actually happening on the ground.

For example, “There were also 125 people taken out of the overflow shelter in the last two months,” he says. “As turnover occurs in existing shelters, people are being removed from the LDRC into existing shelters.”

And because overnight staff members are focused on engagement and services, and because people staying in the shelter undergo at least a preliminary assessment of their needs, when a space opens in CASS, the Watkins women shelter, or any other shelter in the area, there’s a group of people at the LDRC ready to fill the vacancies.

This is about getting people into homes, Liggett says. But it’s also about making system-level changes and creating a network of providers that help move people through the shelter system as quickly as possible — it’s a well-accepted fact in the housing world that people who stay in shelters for shorter periods of time have more success transitioning into permanent housing situations.

"Then we can use shelters more as they were intended to be used: as short-term [places] for people to stay,” Liggett says.

This whole operation is working with the underlying premise, he says, that shelter is not the solution — housing is.
Still, nothing is simple, he says, even keeping track of who is staying in the shelter spaces. While an average of 350 men and women sleep in the LDRC, St. Vincent de Paul, and what’s called the sandlot — a covered outdoor area — each night, numbers can fluctuate by as much as 200 from one night to the next. And in the past two months, 1,200 people have used the new temporary shelter service.

Liggett cites the figures to demonstrate how challenging it can be to maintain contact with a person long enough to get through all the housing-assessment tools and paperwork and then place the individual in an apartment.

“It’s such a mobile population [and] people spend multiple nights in multiple places,” Liggett says. “There are people who are in the LDRC that have been in CASS and [already started the re-housing process], but then maybe left for a while or lost their bed. Sometimes we identify someone for placement, and then they don’t go to the LDRC for a period a time, and then suddenly reappear.”

The transient nature of their clients’ lifestyle doesn’t mean the goal of ending homelessness through housing is impossible, it just means any re-housing initiative isn’t as straightforward as filling out some paperwork and handing a person the keys to an apartment, he says..

Another thing to keep in mind, Liggett says, is that it’s never going to be as simple as saying "X" number of people from the LDRC got housed this month, "X" number from CASS, "X" number from Circle the City, or "X" number from the other shelter-to-housing programs in the area. Many people spend time in more than one facility and often go in and out of homelessness — shelters see a spike in clients at the end of the month because people who rely on benefit checks run out of money.

But with the coordinated assessment and engagement policy, staff has a much clearer image of who a person is, where the person's been in the past, and what sorts of services are needed, and it allows the process to more accurately reflect its interconnected nature.

“Some of what we’re finding with the tracking and data on these people is pretty sophisticated,” he adds. And it’s the type of information that’s helpful for shaping future policy and housing programs.

“We have teams of people from the city, county, United Way, and other provider groups that have been meeting daily to gather lists of people using the LDRC. They’re conducting hundreds of assessments and engaging people, and beginning to make placements,” Liggett says.

“Placements are going to start to picking up — this is really going to ramp up now as it all comes together.”
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser