This City Council Race Could Change Homelessness in Phoenix

Tents are crowded into a parking lot belonging to the Human Services Campus during a clean up in February.
Tents are crowded into a parking lot belonging to the Human Services Campus during a clean up in February. Elizabeth Whitman
Phoenix City Councilmember Michael Nowakowski is leaving office in April after 12 years, leaving behind a big issue for whoever replaces him.

No matter what the new councilmember wants to do for District 7, which includes central and south Phoenix, he or she will have to contend with "The Zone," an area that has been a center of people experiencing homelessness for decades, and the Human Services Campus, a 13-acre facility that currently serves as the central, most visible point for addressing homelessness in the Valley.

Tension in the area has heightened in the last year as the campus has sought, amid objections from neighboring residents, to expand the number of beds it can offer to people.

Nowakowski has been a fierce opponent of the expansion, even storming a press conference where Mayor Kate Gallego voiced her support for the plan, and backing a moon-shot idea to move the campus to Phoenix's District 8. The future of the homelessness dilemma in part depends on who wins the race to replace him.

Councilmember Michael Nowakowski is leaving office after 12 years.
City of Phoenix
Leading the candidates in fundraising is Yassamin Ansari, a former United Nations adviser focused on addressing climate change who has received the mayor's endorsement. Backed by the Urban Phoenix Project, which has fought with Nowakowski in the past, Ansari promises an approach more centered around listening to service providers.

Her biggest rival financially is Cinthia Estela, a self-described business owner involved in the Laveen community who scored Nowakowski's endorsement. Unsurprisingly, Estela's approach is more in line with continuing business as usual.

Also running are Francisca Montoya, who works for the nonprofit Raza Development Fund and was chief of staff to District 7 councilmember Salomon Leija in the '90s, and G. Grayson Flunoy, who does small business outreach for Valley Metro and only registered to run in July. The fifth candidate, Susan Mercado-Gudino, didn't respond to repeated messages.

Here's what they had to say on the issues:

Campus Expansion

The Human Services Campus and the adjacent religious nonprofit André House are seeking a change in zoning that would let them put several hundred more shelter beds in their existing spaces to accommodate the 2,300 people now living on Phoenix streets.

Neighborhood groups opposed to the zoning change have said they are already suffering with the current situation and believe this would make things worse, while service providers say that since homeless people are already there, the addition of more shelter beds would help address the impacts that neighbors are concerned about. The city council is expected to vote on the zoning application in December.

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Yassamin Ansari is a former United Nations adviser focused on addressing climate change.
Courtesy of Yassamin Ansari
All of the District 7 candidates agree, as do service providers and neighbors, that more shelters distributed across the city and region are needed. The question is: what role does expanding the campus play in that need?

The candidates were split on this issue. Ansari and Flunoy said they support the expansion; Estela and Montoya are opposed.

Ansari said we need to follow the lead of experts — in this case "mostly service providers" — in addressing the current, "inhumane" situation. She said that she supports the zoning change as long as it's part of expanding shelters across the city and addressing issues that cause homelessness, like a lack of affordable housing, and that neighbors get a seat at the table.

She said she liked Los Angeles' model, in which L.A. council members each agreed to take on some new shelters in their own district, but was noncommittal about adding more shelters in Phoenix's District 7.

"I think whatever is really fair," she said.

Flunoy said he hadn't had a chance to see the zoning proposal, but that expansion does seem needed.

"You don't have an option to displace them or move them elsewhere," he said.

Estela and Montoya said they felt there was already too much of an impact on the area surrounding the campus and it wasn't fair for only District 7 to carry that burden.

Montoya has lived in the district for 30 years and remembers when CASS, the emergency shelter later incorporated into the Human Services Campus, opened.

"And I clearly remember it was meant to be one of many sites across the city," she said. She worries the expanded beds will be seen as "mission accomplished," to the detriment of other efforts.

Move Them Out?

Last month, councilmembers Nowakowski and Sal DiCiccio rolled out an idea: move the Human Services Campus approximately three miles east to the former St. Luke's campus, make it bigger, and get the state and county to help pay for it. There are some issues with the idea, including St. Luke's proximity to nearby communities, and it was blasted by councilmember Carlos Garcia, whose district it would go in. A neighborhood leader near the Human Services Campus also criticized it.

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Francisca Montoya works for the nonprofit Raza Development Fund and was chief of staff to District 7 councilmember Salomon Leija in the '90s.
Courtesy of Francisca Montoya
Estela, Nowakowski's endorsed replacement, was the only one of the four candidates to say she supported the plan. She pointed to past plans to open multiple Human Services Campuses throughout the Valley, and wants to continue that approach.

"It shouldn't just be on District 7," she said.

However, moving the campus to a different district raises its own concerns. Flunoy said a member of the school board in the area near St. Luke's, whom he's known for years, called him unprompted to voice concerns about the idea. He said it's not fair to drop some of the impacts of the Human Services Campus on another neighborhood that has been struggling.

Montoya and Ansari aren't paying the plan much mind.

"I think it's a little bit of a pipe dream at this point," Ansari said. She has no particular thoughts about it but believes the city should focus on existing plans to address homelessness, instead. Montoya said she hadn't seen Nowakowski and DiCiccio's plan.

City Looks to Future

The city of Phoenix is currently working on finalizing a comprehensive plan that will guide its response to homelessness for years to come. City staff presented a draft of the plan at the beginning of the summer. The city council will soon consider a final version of it.

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G. Grayson Flunoy does small business outreach for Valley Metro. He's a late addition to the race.
Courtesy of G. Grayson Flunoy
Ansari had the greatest familiarity with the plan. She said she thought the plan was a "really great start" and appreciated that it includes addressing affordable housing issues. She thinks addressing homelessness requires a "housing-first" approach and will be releasing her own plan to that end this week.

Montoya said there were good ideas in the city plan, particularly around expanding the affordable housing stock, but she echoed the concerns of homeless advocates about plans to develop a "code of conduct" that could be used to ban people from city facilities. She said it reminded her of codes of conduct for students in school that can just end up stigmatizing students instead of addressing the underlying issues at hand.

Estela said she'd opened up an email with the plan last week, but hadn't had a chance to read through it. She said she generally supports expanding affordable housing and using more hotels as transitional housing to help people get out of homelessness.

Flunoy said he hadn't had a chance to read the plan yet. He's been working his day job while also doing regular canvassing since he began running in June. "Running for office is extremely intense," he said.

Criminalization of Homelessness

One criticism of the city's draft plan focused on measures that homeless advocates and some councilmembers said would criminalize people for living outside.

All the candidates said they were open to looking at ordinances such as the city's currently unenforced "urban camping" ordinance that advocates say punish people for having to live outdoors. They were more split on what role police should play in interacting with unsheltered populations.

Estela was the most supportive of police being the primary contact with unsheltered people. She said she wanted to have specialized police officers who can connect people with resources, but that all officers should be trained on interacting with homeless people.

"We definitely need to have well-trained officers," she said. She said Phoenix needs more officers and more resources.

On the other end, Montoya said she supported moving funding away from police to create a specialized civilian team to do outreach that would connect people with resources.

Flunoy said he's interested in looking at third-party groups to handle mental health issues and connect people with resources.

"I would like to remove the police from the equation," he said.

Flunoy said he does not support defunding police, but contends that if police could avoid dealing with homelessness issues, they would have more time to do other things and save money.

Ansari supported expanding mental health services and social workers as an alternative to current policing. "I just think we ask the police department and police officers to deal with too much," she said. She wants to have a specialized team to address these issues, but said she's not enough of an expert to say whether it should be embedded in the police or be a separate entity.

Hostile Architecture

A point of contention for some service providers has been the chains installed by the city on a number of parking strips near the Human Services Campus, following the displacing of a number of people living in tents there. Around the same time, the city spent around $20,000 installing gates in two alleyways nearby.  It then sought reimbursement for the gates from CARES Act money given to the city to address the impacts of COVID-19, giving the rationale that the alleys had become unhygienic.

Montoya said she hadn't seen the chains yet, because she'd been working from home since they were installed. She said she wanted to see the chains before weighing in, but generally supported a more "humanistic" than punitive approach to homelessness. She said she supports the alley gate program but that using the CARES act money for that purpose was a "stretch."

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These chains installed in parking strips around the Human Services Campus are one example advocates have pointed to as a hostile approach to homelessness in Phoenix.
Erasmus Baxter
Ansari said that with the information she has right now, she would have to agree with the service providers on the posts. She said the gated alley program is helpful for community members but said there were more valuable and urgent things CARES Act money could go to.

Flunoy said he didn't have a "clear perspective" on the posts and would have to consult with others on it. He said he understood why residents would want gates, and pointed out that COVID-19 relief money has been used for all kinds of purposes a the state level.

"Everyone's taking that money and using it as they see fit," he said. As long as COVID-19 issues aren't being neglected, he doesn't have an issue with using the money for different purposes.

Estela initially said she had no thoughts on the chains, but then said she didn't think it was a bad idea because you have to be "sensitive" to business owners.

"So I think it's protection for all," she said. She said she didn't have enough information to comment on the gates.

Regional Approach

Across the board, there seems to be agreement that a more regional approach to homelessness is needed, and that the county, state, and other Valley cities need to do more to help. How to make that a reality is another question.

All four candidates besides Montoya said they would call some kind of meeting to bring all the cities in the Valley together.

Montoya is a little more pessimistic. She thinks as the number of people on the street expands with the COVID-19 pandemic's economic fallout, the sight of homeless families will force action this winter.

"If we really wanted to address this, we would've taken care of it," she said.

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A map from the January point-in-time count shows the location of all unsheltered people found in Maricopa County.
Maricopa Association of Governments
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The number of unsheltered people in Maricopa County has increased steadily over the last five years.
Maricopa Association of Governments
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.