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Tents near the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix, pre-coronavirus.EXPAND
Tents near the homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix, pre-coronavirus.
Ray Stern

Pre-Pandemic Count Shows Spike in Homelessness in Maricopa County

Homelessness was increasing in Maricopa County even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, according to a new report.

On January 27, 2020, volunteer surveyors logged 7,419 people experiencing homelessness in the county, an increase of almost 1,000 from 2019, states a report of the annual Point in Time homeless count released on August 10. The number of unsheltered people outpaced the number of people in shelters: 3,767 to 3,652, respectively.

Volunteers spread out across Maricopa County to conduct the annual count on a single day in January each year, an effort coordinated by the Maricopa Association of Governments that seeks to gauge the state and characteristics of the regional homeless population.

Homeless advocates and service providers were not encouraged by this year's results. They see the data as a disturbing, yet unsurprising, reflection of broader trends in the region. Maricopa County's population is growing, housing costs are rising, rental unit vacancy rates are plunging, and evictions are up, while regional emergency shelter and affordable housing capacity have reportedly not kept pace — all factors that advocates say contribute to increased homelessness.

"That was disheartening but not surprising to see," said Ash Uss, advocacy and partnerships coordinator at Andre House, a local homeless services provider. "In Maricopa County, we’re living in this perfect storm of factors that make it more likely for someone to fall into homelessness in the first place, and factors... that make it more difficult to exit homelessness."

"Those of us working in this space have been saying for a while that we should see [this] coming because shelter capacity has not increased and the number of affordable housing units and housing units in general hasn’t increased while population goes up," said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus. "Wages don’t keep pace with cost-of-living increases, evictions go up. All of those dynamics work against us."

Tamara Wright, co-chair of the Maricopa Regional Continuum of Care Board, the entity that guides the regional response to homelessness, told New Times that this is the first time in the county's history that surveyors have recorded more unsheltered people than those in shelters.

The findings come as the region continues to grapple with homelessness amidst a global pandemic. Maricopa County has been criticized for establishing sweltering, uncovered concrete lots where homeless people can camp near downtown Phoenix; several people have reportedly died on those sites already. (Fields Moseley, a spokesperson for Maricopa County, told New Times after this article was published that causes for two of the three deaths had been identified as drug overdoses.) Meanwhile, Phoenix's draft homelessness response plan has also garnered criticism, and so has the city's intention to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds on fencing to keep the homeless out of alleys near downtown.

The report logged a severe racial disparity in the demographics of the homeless population: 27 percent of the surveyed individuals identified as Black, though Black people make up only about 6 percent of the county's population. Similarly, 7 percent of respondents were Native American, while Native Americans consist of less than 3 percent of the overall county population.

Anecdotally, the demographic finding holds up, some homeless service providers say. They argue that a variety of factors, such as racially disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system, contribute to the trend.

"It matches what we see at the Human Services Campus where we serve single adults experiencing homelessness and we’ve seen similar disproportionality in the representation of Black and African American people, particularly men," Schwabenlender said.

Uss said that she sees many homeless men who were released from prison with a felony on their record, making it harder to find work or a place to live.

Youth homelessness had been on a steady upward trend and continues to increase, the report states. The surveyors characterized youths as anyone aged 18 to 24.

Other demographics, such as people who reported having a mental illness or struggling with drug addiction, stayed steady.

Schwabenlender said that the tallies for homeless youth are likely an undercount.

"18-to-24-year olds don't want to be found and surveyed and talked to," she said. "They may not want to admit that they’re experiencing homelessness."

And with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the regional and national economy, the numbers are bound to get worse, homeless advocates argue.

"We have an intersecting crisis," Wright said. "We have a housing affordability crisis, we have the pandemic, we have unemployment. We’re bound to see some more increases."

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