The Maricopa Alliance for Housing and Shelter, a grassroots organization advocating for the homeless, is demanding conditions improve at the Men's Overflow Shelter and adjacent East Lot immediately. The group sent a clear and strong message in a formal letter to local, county, and state officials this afternoon.
Included in the list of demands are basic necessities and fundamental human rights like potable water and sanitary bathroom conditions. Currently, nine portable toilets--cleaned once a week--are available and expected to serve upwards to 300 individuals per night. There are no hand-washing stations, and the only water available is accessed through a garden hose attached to a spigot, a few feet away from the toilets. MASH is demanding more garbage cans be placed in the area, and that something be done about the rats, mice, and bedbug infestation.
Recipients of the letter--which include Governor Doug Ducey, Mayor Greg Stanton, City Manager Ed Zuercher, and Mark Holleran, CEO of the Central Arizona Shelter Services--have until 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 9 to implement changes at the MOS and East Lot, and until March 11 to provide a detailed action plan for a new emergency shelter. A failure to do so will trigger "action," group leaders tell New Times. (The group is not revealing what specific action they have planned, but Amy McMullen, co-founder of MASH, says whatever they do will "involve and give voice to the city's homeless population.")
The letter comes five days after MASH held a town hall meeting to discuss the situation at the MOS and East Lot. Dozens of men and women who currently live, or once lived, in those locations, attended the meeting and spoke about their experiences. They told stories about prolific drug use, sexual assault, and verbal abuse. One man said he woke up in the middle of the night to a rat chewing on his head. The accounts were graphic and relayed the completely unacceptable condition endured by 500 homeless men and women every night.
Also present at the meeting were Mike Trailor, director of AZ Housing; Bruce Liggett, director of Human Services for Maricopa County; and many local activists and religious leaders. Trailor stated publicly that the requests he heard from for better conditions were "totally reasonable," and that he would relay what he heard to his agency. (Both Trailor and Ligget received copies of MASH's letter.)
"Yes, we had that meeting Friday, but [the situation] is still the same today," says Elizabeth Singleton, communications director of MASH. She points out that there were some very powerful people at that meeting who have the ability to solve urgent problems overnight, but who didn't act.
"We felt that after our forum the message got out that what's going on the in East Lot right now is horrible, [but apparently] our message wasn't heard," McMullen adds. MASH met last night to finalize the letter, and discuss a plan for escalating the effort. It was made clear that they will do whatever it takes to relay the urgency of the situation and get leaders to make change.
If this was a natural disaster, the city, county and state would not hesitate to deploy an emergency response team, Singleton points out. For example, when the Wallow Fire broke out in Arizona in 2011, all levels of government and volunteer organizations reacted immediately, providing evacuated residents with shelter, food, water, and personal hygiene provisions for over 5,000 people.
According to Aprille Slutsky of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, "a lot of resources are available in the state of Arizona to help people in need." New Times asked if the state has the capacity to provide emergency shelter, food, water, and bathroom facilities for several hundred displaced people--"absolutely," she replied. Approximately 500 people stay in the MOS and East Lot every night.
The situation is urgent: "People are literally dying out there," McMullen says. "I believe our demands are extremely reasonable. We're not asking for anything that normal people would not expect."
The letter also makes clear that after the MOS is closed, a new plan must be put in place. "They seem to think that when they close the MOS they're just going to put people in the parking lot," McMullen says. "We should not enable them to put people in a parking lot."
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