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The patio outside the Justa Center for homeless seniors.EXPAND
The patio outside the Justa Center for homeless seniors.
Elizabeth Whitman

Phoenix Has a $5 Million Program to Help the Homeless. What Is It Doing?

Phoenix's $4.8-million, five-year program to help homeless people has much room for improvement, records show.

Called PHX C.A.R.E.S., or Community, Action, Response, Engagement, Services, the program began in 2017 when the city inked a $2.5 million contract with Community Bridges Inc. to take on a Herculean task: clear homeless people off the street and get them back on their feet.

A year later, the city nearly doubled the contract amount to $4.8 million.

But since Community Bridges began reaching out to homeless people in Phoenix in July 2017, it has failed to meet several goals laid out in the contract, although it has met others, program reviews show.

Those reports — a jumble of different figures and inconsistent tracking periods — also raise questions about information not being tracked, like the proportion of people who eventually go back to living on the streets after going through programs set up by Community Bridges, or how many people are arrested during outreach, which police can join.

“CBI will partner with police if a more targeted approach is needed,” the contract states vaguely.

The initial contract budgeted for, among other things, seven full-time "peer support specialists" and one full-time emergency medical technician, along with nine computers at a cost of $2,347 each.

Community Bridges, Inc. is a Mesa-based behavioral health care and addiction treatment nonprofit corporation that has been in business since 1982, according to filings with the Arizona Corporation Commission. Besides running Phoenix’s homeless outreach program, it has also operated the Central City Addiction Recovery Center at the Arizona State Hospital since January 2018.

The city consistently has concluded that Community Bridges is meeting its contractual obligations, despite the fact that it has missed the mark in several performance metrics.

Meanwhile, any efforts to address homelessness in Phoenix are made all the more challenging by a lack of citywide affordable-housing requirements, which are prohibited by state law, and by a dysfunctional mental health system.

A homeless man walks near the Arizona Capitol in January 2013.EXPAND
A homeless man walks near the Arizona Capitol in January 2013.

In the city’s review of the first contract year, from 2017 to 2018, Community Bridges contacted 1,384 homeless people. Of those, it had engaged 373 of them, or 27 percent, by April 30, 2018. The contract called for contacting at least 1,000 people, and for engaging — interacting with and getting information from people — at least two-thirds.

Of the 373 people engaged, Community Bridges was supposed to develop a housing plan for at least two-thirds of them. By the end of April 2018, with two months left in the contract year, Community Bridges was pretty close to its goal, at 60 percent. It exceeded its goal of getting 15 percent of the 373 into temporary or permanent housing.

A review partway through the second contract year, from July 2018 through June 2019, showed similar shortfalls. By the end of March, with three months until the end of the contract year, Community Bridges had engaged 29 percent of clients — far short of the two-thirds called for in the contract.

But it vastly improved the proportion of people who had left their programs and found housing, with nearly a quarter doing so.

In her review that year, Deputy Human Services Director Tamyra Spendly cited the low engagement rate by saying “Improvements are needed,” before concluding, not entirely accurately, "Community Bridges is providing appropriate services and is satisfactorily meeting the contractual requirements.”

This year, an amendment to the contract doubled the percentage of people that Community Bridges needs to land in housing, from 15 percent to 30, after the city increased the size of its outreach team.

So far, in the first two months of the contract year, July and August, it hasn’t met that goal.

This July, for example, 163 people left CBI’s street outreach program. Forty of them, or less than 25 percent, had a “positive” exit, meaning they graduated to housing or a health care facility.

Per CBI’s contract with the city, 30 percent of the people leaving CBI’s Street Outreach Program need to exit to temporary or permanent housing. It is supposed to serve a minimum of 1,500 people this year.

Elizabeth DaCosta, housing and community integration director for Community Bridges, said that 30 percent represents an annual goal, so it’s too soon to claim that the organization is falling short. Tamra Ingersoll, a spokesperson for the city's Human Services Department, echoed that statement.

“The percentage will increase each month as individuals move through the process of change,” DaCosta said via email.

She also emphasized the challenging nature of reaching out to people living on the streets.

Community Bridges “is encountering individuals who are living in crisis,” DaCosta said. “The majority of those living on the streets have ongoing mental and physical health conditions and have little or no access to health care.”

She added, “There is an absolute lack of affordable housing in our community,” noting that the organization does encounter shortages of subsidized housing for qualified clients, who end up on wait lists.

Community Bridges does not track the number of people it helps find housing who eventually return to being homeless. Instead, it leaves that data-gathering to the housing provider, making it difficult for Community Bridges or the city to gauge how many of its clients remain in housing.

“When a client enters housing, he/she is transferred to the housing providers project,” Da Costa said. “The housing project tracks the count of clients who return to homelessness.” The number of people who return to homelessness after going through the program remains unclear.

The nonprofit and the city both say they do not track the number of people arrested as a result of outreach through Community Bridges and PHX C.A.R.E.S., even though those arrests would occur as a result of the city's program.

Phoenix New Times has yet to receive data, requested in April from the Phoenix police department, on arrests of all homeless people.

All told, in the 13 months from August 2018 through August 2019, Community Bridges managed to get 294 people off the street. Asked whether the city considered that number a good value for the $4.8 million that Phoenix will pay Community Bridges over five years — that's a rough average of $3,500 per person — Ingersoll did not answer directly.

Instead, she plunged into an explanation for why the program uses the metrics it does. The 294 people represented a 42 percent "placement rate," out of 688 "engagements," Ingersoll wrote in an email. Contacts are defined as simply speaking with a person, whereas engagement means more interaction, like getting them started in a case management plan.

"A fact that not everyone understands is that sometimes engagements will take 20 to 30 contacts with someone. Sometimes engagement only comes after a few contacts, but rarely on the first contact," she added. "That is why the engagement number is the focus number and not the contact [number]."

Ingersoll added, "Just like the national average, we are seeing an increase in the numbers of chronic homeless individuals. These are defined as people not currently interested in services or engaging to end their homelessness."

She acknowledged that the program's record-keeping had room for improvement. Until July, everything was on paper, rather than in a computerized system. "We literally kept it in binders," she said of the program's records, which were "like 20 feet deep a month."

The numbers of homeless people in Phoenix and the Valley continue to climb, as the region grapples with an affordable housing shortage, a dearth of shelter beds, a severe lack of quality mental health care, and unresolved questions about effectively addressing the crisis.

City data show that in 2017, 1,508 people in Phoenix did not have housing, up from 771 in 2014. The number of unsheltered people has risen through the Valley more broadly, from fewer than 6,000 people in 2014, according to an annual count, to more than 6,660 in 2019.

Meanwhile, the city’s description of PHX C.A.R.E.S. depicts homelessness as a blight and a nuisance.

The program “was developed in response to a significant increase for services related to persons living without shelter in neighborhoods, parks, and other public spaces,” reads one description from a monthly report.

Phoenix residents can call a dedicated hotline “to report issues related to homelessness,” at which point the city will respond, first with services for said homeless person, then with “clean-up, enforcement, and restoration of space to its intended use as needed.”

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