Dorothy Martinez ended up in jail for about three weeks for stealing a Dr. Pepper and sushi from a grocery store deli. She was hungry. She couldn’t afford the fine for the misdemeanor offense.
On June 1, she left the Lower Buckeye Jail near 35th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road and walked all the way to the overflow shelters on the Human Services Campus at 11th Avenue and Jackson Street. She was dressed in a “bubble suit,” a white, plastic jumpsuit the jail provided because it lost her clothes. When she arrived at the campus, a man gave her some shoes – a few sizes too big – and some cargo shorts.
On June 21, about three weeks after her arrival at the overflow, she learned she’ll be getting her own apartment. Martinez, 41, has been homeless off and on for about 12 years.
“In less than two weeks, I’ll have a place to live for the rest of my life. … so I’ll never be homeless. I want to pay my rent, I want to be able to budget my money, so I don’t ever have to go through this anymore. I want to go to school and help other people and be resourceful,” Martinez said, through tears.
Officials hope they can find permanent homes for the hundreds, like Martinez, who stay at the overflow shelters at the Lodestar Day Resource Center and St. Vincent de Paul on the campus on any given night.
The overflows are set to close by the end of October, and local officials and nonprofits are working hard to find a more permanent housing arrangement for the residents who need it.
Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of Valley of the Sun United Way, said permanent housing typically costs less. The average homeless person in Maricopa County costs about $40,000 per year in services, from shelter to assistance programs to emergency room visits. But a person in a permanent housing placement would cost a fraction of that at about $10,000 to $15,000 per year, including a rent subsidy or housing voucher, she said.
“Shelter doesn’t end homelessness. Housing ends homelessness,” Schwabenlender said.
On a recent Tuesday night, dozens of people line up outside the black metal gates – men at one entrance, women at another – surrounding the campus.
Inside, volunteers work to turn the two buildings into makeshift homeless shelters. They move about 150 mint green mats, a few inches thick, from a storage shed outside into a large atrium in Lodestar, each about six inches apart, for homeless men to sleep on.
Another 150 or so will go into St. Vincent de Paul, where women and disabled men will stay. Dozens more will sleep outside on the campus, some even choosing to brave the intense 100-degree-plus heat.
The overflows were always intended to be temporary, its funders say, and money coming from the federal government is shifting to permanent solutions instead of paying for the overflow shelters continuously. A coalition of funders, including the city of Phoenix, Maricopa County, the Arizona Department of Housing and Valley of the Sun United Way, wants to find ways to move people off the floors of the Lodestar and St. Vincent de Paul buildings into permanent homes or proper shelters.
The money to operate the overflow shelters was patched together from multiple agencies, though there’s no permanent source of money to pay for the $125,000 per month it costs to run the overflows.
From last July to June 20 of this year, the city of Phoenix and the city’s industrial development authority spent $270,000 on the overflows, said Bruce Liggett, director of human services at Maricopa County. The county spent $637,900, and the Housing Department also spent $637,900.
After June 30, the county will spend about $300,000 to $400,000 as the sole funder until money runs out, which Liggett projected would be Oct. 31. He said the county wants the shelters to stay open through the summer, when temperatures grow too dangerous for people to sleep outside.
But time is limited as the group hustles to find places for a growing group of homeless people to stay.
And while there are between 300 to 400 people staying there on any given night, the number actually served over the past year was nearly 6,600, making a permanent solution more difficult.
The push for more permanent housing
Last year, the Men’s Overflow Shelter operated by the Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) in a Maricopa County property was closed because it wasn’t habitable due to multiple code violations. Many homeless people returned to sleeping in a parking lot near the Human Services Campus once the building closed. CASS operates a 470-bed shelter on the campus that’s always at capacity, prompting the need for overflow shelters nearby.
As a response, the county, city of Phoenix and the Arizona Department of Housing kicked in money to finance temporary shelters at Lodestar and St. Vincent de Paul.
But come October, the county expects money to run out for the temporary overflows, once again bringing up questions about where people will go.
“This has always been meant to be temporary and sort of a stop-gap measure,” said Liggett.
While the funding may be running out, in some ways, it’s not necessarily about funding.
David Bridge, the director of the Human Services Campus, said the facilities were simply not designed to house people, and sleeping on a mat on the floor isn’t the most humane way for people to live. The “knee-jerk reaction” would be to continuing building bigger shelters, but that may not be the wisest approach, he said.
“I think in the next four months, that’s what the discussion’s going to be: not just how are you going to house these people, but what’s the most effective, efficient and humane way to do it,” Bridge said.
Many of those discussions center on permanent supportive housing, a model that includes a permanent living situation, without a set time limit, often with wraparound services. After decades of research, the national model is shifting from transitional services for the homeless, like overflow shelters, to permanent solutions like housing, advocates say, though a big shift in the approach to solving homelessness will likely take some time and more money.
At places like Encanto Pointe, a permanent supportive housing facility off Indian School Road on Ninth Street, the chronically homeless are given a one-bedroom, 700-square-foot apartment, funded by Section 8 housing vouchers. The building has a 24/7 staffed front desk, a food shelf with dry and refrigerated goods, community areas, a laundry and a computer room.
Heather, who asked that her last name not be used, has lived in one of Encanto Pointe’s 54 units since the building opened 3 1/2 years ago. She became homeless after dealing with a substance abuse problem and being hit by a car, which led to a traumatic brain injury.
On a recent morning, Heather told Dede Yazzie Devine, the president of Native American Connections, which owns and runs the building, all about her successes. She graduated with a certificate in peer support training, she told Yazzie Devine. She has a job interview lined up, and she would be going to a job fair as well.
Yazzie Devine said Heather’s story shows just how vital a safe, stable living arrangement is for those living on the streets or in temporary shelters. Residents contribute 30 percent of any income, either from jobs or social programs like disability, toward rent at Encanto Pointe. The program “encourages people to be as functional as they can be,” she said.
Sisterhood of the Shelter
Back at the campus, after waiting in line, people begin to move from outside the gates, first scanning in with a campus ID card that allows staffers to track who’s staying in the overflows and reach out to them with services, if needed.
About 26 percent of people need one-time help, like a utility down payment, a bus ticket to be near family or assistance with rent, according to numbers provided by the county.
Each person will be provided with a sleeping mat and a sheet. They can bring in one backpack of their personal belongings, but can’t bring in their own bedding. Many opt to store their other items in a bag-check overnight.
Darlene Carchedi arrived at the campus about four months ago with her husband. She went to jail after police arrested her on an old warrant she wasn’t aware of, she said. Her husband lost his job.
“We tried our best to hang onto our home, and we couldn’t,” she said.
She’s trying to find permanent housing and continually praises the staff at the campus for helping her as she navigates being homeless for the first time. She has found comfort in friends at the shelter, including Martinez, and over the course of a few hours, the women regularly alternate between laughing and crying. It’s a sisterhood, Carchedi said, but everyone wants to move on from the overflow shelter.
“To be honest with you, my biggest fear my whole life has been being homeless,” she said.
It’s tough having to sleep separated from her husband. She has night terrors and a detachment disorder stemming from a rough childhood in inner-city Chicago. As a child she saw people burned alive and beheaded, leading to a post-traumatic stress diagnosis, she said.
“People look at me and they’re like, my husband and I look like we’re on vacation, we wear matching clothes. And I’m like, yeah, well, you better talk to our travel agent – he should be in prison because he sent us here,” Carchedi jokes.
In August, the overflow shelters will start to phase down, beginning with people sleeping outside the shelter on the campus property, then the men sleeping at the Lodestar building, and then the women at St. Vincent de Paul, Liggett of Maricopa County said.
The funder’s collaborative has enough funding for about 525 placements in permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing, which is less intensive and last up to a year, Liggett said.
So far, they’ve filled about 360 of them, Liggett said. Usage of the overflow shelters has trended downward since last August, when the shelter saw about 445 people on an average night, to 381 people per night in May 2016, according to county data.
“How much larger would the current population be had we not made all these placements? We are absolutely trending in the right direction,” Liggett said.
Joan Serviss, the director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, said much research backs up the idea of permanent supportive housing. The issue is starting to hit critical mass now, and funding from federal sourcing is starting to back up the research and provide money for permanent housing, she said.
But there would likely need to be more housing and more funding to fully address the problem.
The overflow shelters’ closing coincides with moves by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund permanent supportive housing over transitional housing like shelters. This year, many temporary housing programs in the Valley, including House of Refuge and the Sojourner Center, didn’t receive HUD funding.
Liggett said he is “of course” concerned about people potentially ending up back out on the street as the overflow shelter closes.
The focus is on helping those who are chronically homeless, Liggett said, rather than those who are episodically homeless, meaning without a place to stay just for a few days. The chronically homeless are the most vulnerable and also the biggest users of emergency rooms and police services, he said.
“People, when they talk about eliminating homelessness, nobody is saying all homelessness, every minute of every day. They’re saying the chronically homeless,” Liggett said.
Homelessness grows as the clock ticks
LaQuita Johnson, known as “Red” around the campus, has been in and out of local shelters a few times. She has been at the overflow for about two months this time around, though she has been homeless off and on for about nine years. Originally from Memphis, she first came to the Valley with a friend who was a truck driver.
In Memphis, before she became homeless, she worked for a newspaper company. She fell behind on rent, and eventually ended up in court for an eviction proceeding. With an eviction on your record, it’s much harder to find places willing to rent to you.
Since coming to Phoenix, Johnson said she has done things she had never done before – slept at bus stops, slept behind churches, anywhere the police wouldn’t hassle her or her friends.
For Johnson, the bad times all seemed to start in 2005, when her mother died.
“I took my mom’s death really hard. She was my best friend, my life, my everything. It’s been very difficult for me. Looked like, after I lost my mom in April 2005, everything else just went downhill for me,” Johnson said.
Johnson will be applying for Section 8 housing in the coming months, she said.
“I want to get out of this place. I’m tired of moving from place to place to place,” she said.
Michael Trailor, director of the state Housing Department, said the groups have been targeting people staying at the overflow shelters to connect them with permanent placements. But as more than 300 people have been placed in housing, the numbers using the overflow shelters haven’t gone down as considerably as expected, he said.
“This is a very unfortunate example of the continuing increases that our communities and communities across the country are experiencing in homelessness,” Trailor said.
And the clock is ticking.
“We’re going to be working on this right up into the fall. … Right now, the plan is to find better arrangements than a temporary solution,” Liggett said.
Other options include shifting people to shelters that aren’t at capacity in other areas of the Valley or potentially adding more beds to existing shelters like CASS, Trailor said. He also mentioned available beds at the East Valley Men’s Shelter in Mesa, UMOM in Phoenix, Faith House in the West Valley and the Phoenix Rescue Mission.
But that requires funding and political will, and adding beds at the Human Services Campus doesn’t always go over well with surrounding areas, he said.
“The biggest obstacle to that is that the neighborhoods around the Human Services Campus don’t want to see any more beds … which is, I think, illogical because when you don’t have enough shelter beds you have more people on the street,” Trailor said.
Serviss, of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, said she’s encouraged that the funders are looking at a way to utilize existing shelter space while also assessing the needs in the homeless community more thoughtfully and exploring more permanent solutions.
“But obviously, we’re concerned about individuals returning to the streets. We at the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness feel it’s a basic human right to have a roof over your head,” she said.
People likely won’t end up sleeping back in the parking lot again, at least that’s not the intention, said Bridge, director of the Human Services Campus, though he added some may ultimately choose to sleep there. Nobody’s plan is to displace anyone sleeping at the overflow shelters, he said.
“We’ve given the community 16 months (from the time the men’s overflow closed) to come up with a long-term solution, and we’re really encouraging that they find that. I think they’ll come up with something,” Bridge said.
Back on the campus, the line to get in dies down by about 7 p.m. People trickle in until 9 p.m., when the doors close at the overflows and lights go out.
In the morning, the people who stayed overnight will wake up to get breakfast on the campus. Staffers and volunteers will again turn the makeshift shelter back into a resource center, clearing out the mint-green pads and sheets.
Come evening, the lines will form again.
But in two weeks, Martinez won’t be in that line anymore. She’ll be moving into a place of her own, and she’s sure it will change her life.
“I feel like I won the lottery,” she said.