Phoenix's Draft Homelessness Plan Raises Hopes and Concerns

Police talk with a homeless man in downtown Phoenix in February 2020.
Police talk with a homeless man in downtown Phoenix in February 2020. Elizabeth Whitman
What was meant to be a simple vote on a live-updating inventory of homeless shelter capacity became a flash point on Phoenix's response to homelessness last week.

The online tool itself is relatively innocuous and — most agree — needed. Tyler Rosensteel, who's in charge of developing the portal, told Phoenix New Times it would be easier to access than the current system for tracking shelter usage, would include a wider variety of shelters, and would offer better data on how people experiencing homelessness are navigating systems meant to help them.

"I think the people who oppose it also agree it's a needed item," said Rosensteel, who works for Crisis Response Network, a nonprofit that runs the 2-1-1 hotline number in Maricopa County and the current shelter-tracking system.

However, when the city council first considered the $200,000 federal-grant-funded contract to develop the service on June 24, it received a number of comments strongly against the measure. By the time council members reconvened to consider the contract again a week later, the opposition had swelled to around 45 minutes' worth of people signed up in advance to voice their opposition to the contract;  165 comments were  submitted in opposition to it.

"This is the larger issue I have with it. Police shouldn't be the primary group interacting with our unsheltered community," said Council member Carlos Garcia, one of the two "no" votes on the contract.

The tool's connection to data collection and policing is clear: The proposal names the Phoenix Police Department as the primary user of the portal. Homeless advocates fear that it would be used by police to ticket people living outdoors by showing that there is shelter available — regardless of whether that shelter is nearby, can accommodate that person's possessions, or is safe. The information would allow police to legally skirt a federal appeals court decision covering most western states that says people cannot be criminally cited for sleeping outdoors if there are no available shelter beds.

While the city has repeatedly said the portal is not designed for that purpose, advocates are skeptical. As recently as April, police displaced people living on the streets — COVID-19 notwithstanding — and in January,  advocates protested that Phoenix was not following the federal court's ruling. These actions continued even as the city and county have for years lacked anywhere near enough shelter beds for people living on the streets to move in to.

"Not having a place to live is not a crime," Garcia said. "The real harm is we as a city have failed to build enough affordable housing, failed to provide enough shelter beds."

The day before the city council first considered the contract, it moved forward the draft of the plan meant to guide the city's response to homelessness for years to come. While service providers and advocates were pleased that the city was putting something forward, they noted it included a number of measures that would crack down on people living outside.

The portal is only a small part of the homelessness plan, a short-term measure meant to be started as the larger plan is tweaked, based on community feedback, over the summer. But it illustrates that until Phoenix grapples with the questions of what role policing should play in its homelessness response, advocates may put up fierce opposition to ideas on how to address the 3,800 people estimated to be living on Phoenix streets — a number that has jumped by 1,600 in the last five years and is only expected to continue to climb in the COVID-19 era.

The Plan

The city's 31-page draft of its comprehensive plan to address homelessness has a lot in it, from housing policy to bio-hazard clean up.

It calls for increased shelter beds and mental health services as well as measures to crack down on people experiencing homelessness: replacing bus benches with chairs, implementing more gates and fences in the area around the Human Services Campus homeless center in Phoenix, working with federal authorities to remove people camping along the Grand Canal, and shutting down unlicensed distribution of food to homeless people.

Other portions recommended establishing a to-be-determined universal code of conduct to facilitate banning people from city property like community centers and libraries, and removing a homeless person's belongings.

click to enlarge The number of unsheltered people in Maricopa County has increased steadily over the last five years. - MARICOPA ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS
The number of unsheltered people in Maricopa County has increased steadily over the last five years.
Maricopa Association of Governments

Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender thinks the plan has many positive parts, but described the theme of criminalization as "sad and disappointing." She thinks the plan needs clear values driving it.

"These aren't strategies to help people in homelessness," Schwabenlender told New Times.

Ash Uss, advocacy and recruiting coordinator for André House of Hospitality, said that for clients with a history of involvement with the justice system, a simple encounter with the police can put them back at square one.

A disproportionate number of the organization's clients — around 30 percent — are Black, in a city that's only around 7 percent Black, Uss said. Contact with police carries extra danger for them.

Tamyra Spendley, Phoenix's deputy human services director over homelessness, said police would only be involved in serious cases; otherwise, issues would be resolved at the department level. An example of a code of conduct, she said, would be asking visitors to store any weapons at the front desk while using city facilities.

Other items in the plan, like removing bus-stop benches, were based on feedback from neighborhood groups collected earlier in the year, she said.

Sergeant Mercedes Fortune, a Phoenix police spokesperson, said that — based on health recommendations — police work with people experiencing homelessness to get them into locations with access to hand-washing stations and toilets, and to follow physical distancing recommendation. The city's largest encampment of homeless people, augmented by new spaces in nearby parking lots, is bounded loosely between Ninth and 13th avenues, and Jackson and Jefferson streets.

"We make every attempt to lead with service and recognize that we can do this when we work with other resources, such as Community Bridges," Fortune wrote in an email. "...Our goal is to help and if citations are issued it is related to a criminal matter, i.e. blocking a street or impeding traffic. Officers work with everyone in that area on a daily basis and patiently work with them."

Fortune did not reply to an email inquiring about whether the department was currently issuing citations to homeless people for camping.

Spendley said outreach over the summer will specifically include service providers, business owners and community members, as well as going to the convention center to talk to people experiencing homelessness who are sheltering from the heat there, she said. The current plan is to begin at the end of the month and bring something back to the council in October that incorporates specific benchmarks and other changes the community has asked for.

On the Campus

Arguments over policing homeless people take place against a bleak reality: there's nowhere near enough shelter capacity. Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), which runs the emergency shelter at the Human Services Campus, is only currently able to house 390 adults with COVID-19 precautions in place. A January count found 2,380 unsheltered people in Phoenix alone.

"It's kind of crazy we're having this conversation because there are no beds," Uss at André House told New Times of the controversy around the portal.

click to enlarge These chains installed in parking strips around the Human Services Campus are one example advocates have pointed to around Phoenix's hostile approach to homelessness. - ERASMUS BAXTER
These chains installed in parking strips around the Human Services Campus are one example advocates have pointed to around Phoenix's hostile approach to homelessness.
Erasmus Baxter
While government money has allowed CASS to house some medically vulnerable people and seniors in hotels, there are limits to that capacity as well. It also means displacing them from the central Phoenix area.

The Human Services Campus is currently applying for a change in zoning that would allow the nonprofit to increase the number of shelter beds to 700, and to add an additional 80 to 100 beds at André House as a low-barrier shelter for people who wouldn't qualify elsewhere.

This concerns Jessica Bueno, president of the nearby Oakland Neighborhood Association.

She told New Times her neighborhood feels the impact of their proximity to the campus. She said they get too much through-traffic, and have to deal with people defecating and using drugs in their alleyways.

Neighbors also worry about crime and safety: In January, a woman struggling with mental health issues and drug addiction tried to grab a child from its mother's arms outside Capitol School.

Bueno said the situation in the neighborhoods around the campus is an example of systemic racism that leaves communities of color to struggle with issues that gentrified white communities do not.

In a 2015 thesis introduction, Arizona State University graduate student Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves traced how people experiencing homeless were driven to the area around where the campus now is, known as "the zone," in the '80s by city-driven development that depleted affordable housing and social services in downtown and emptied out the business that were in "the zone" before.

In 1983, an estimated 600 people lived in tent cities in the area. In the following years, social services followed and opened up in the area. In 1985, CASS opened, and in 2005 the Human Services Campus opened to offer a one-stop shop for services.

However, the campus was never meant to be the end point in solving homelessness. An oft-repeated refrain is that it was meant to be one of six campuses spread throughout the county.

Angela Ojile, president of Madison Pioneers Coalition, a group of residents and business owners around the campus, said she wants to see smaller shelters spread out through the region.

"There's a better way to do this," she said.

She wants to see the city expand COVID-19 efforts dramatically, renting more hotel rooms, buying facilities and opening up the convention center that's being used a cooling station to house people at night.

Schwabenlender, the Human Services Campus director, agreed that a more regional approach is needed.

She thinks the draft plan is too focused on the campus and surrounding area, when there are organizations doing work throughout the city and county. But she said that until things are figured out, offering shelter to people in the area would reduce impacts and could be phased out over time.

"The buildings are already there, and the people are already there," she said.

Urgency Needed

In some ways, arguments over Phoenix's homelessness policy feel life-or-death; in other ways, they're a fight over scraps.

There are a few things most people agree on: Phoenix's homelessness crisis is getting worse, the area downtown around the Human Services Campus is bearing the brunt of the issue, and an approach that incorporates the state and the rest of the county is desperately needed.

A regional approach would help Phoenix address two of its largest issues that are currently in conflict: the shortage of shelter beds and concerns about the concentration of unsheltered people in the area around the Human Services Campus.

CASS Executive Director Lisa Glow is hopeful. She called the city's plan a good foundation and said the process going forward offers a chance to bring all the different stakeholders together.

"Sometimes you put things out there and start building from there," she said.

click to enlarge A map from the January point-in-time count shows the location of all unsheltered people found in Maricopa County. - MARICOPA ASSOCIATION OF GOVERNMENTS
A map from the January point-in-time count shows the location of all unsheltered people found in Maricopa County.
Maricopa Association of Governments

As the mayor and city council considered the comprehensive plan draft last week, they emphasized the need for other cities in the county to step up, as well as the state. 

"Could you talk a little bit more about what other states are doing to fight homelessness at the state government level?" Mayor Kate Gallego asked city staff, emphasizing the word state each time she said it.

However, the pre-prepared list city staff then read — which was comprised of executive actions governors nationwide have taken to address homelessness — seemed directed less at the state at-large than at one man in particular: Governor Doug Ducey.

"I understand that there's some governors who have allocated up to $150 million to fight homelessness," Gallego said. "So, again, I hope we will have partners at every level. We need to do more as a city, but we're going to need partnerships."

Part of the stated reason the city is seeking to develop the controversial system for tracking shelter availability and other data in the first place is to support advocacy for more resources from other levels of government.

What this may look like is still to be determined.

While the process will take time, Spendley, the deputy human services director, said the city is not just waiting until the plan is approved in October to take action.

"We're already affecting things as we go along," she said.

One person who would like to see more is Michael Anthony Felder. He lives in one of the fenced lots the city has allocated for homeless people to live in during the pandemic, and has seen people struggle with addiction and the after-effects of incarceration on top of homelessness.

"There's so much to it — it's not just one thing," he said. He wants the city council and mayor to understand that their legacy is on the line and show a commitment to people experiencing homelessness.

"The head's up there," he said pointing towards City Hall. "The body's down here."

The city council will be seeking input on this report over the summer.
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.