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Overflow shelter will stay open until February

People sleep on thin foam mattresses, placed a few inches apart, on the floor of the overflow shelters on Phoenix's Human Services Campus. (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)

People sleep on thin foam mattresses, placed a few inches apart, on the floor of the overflow shelters on Phoenix’s Human Services Campus. (Photo by Gary Grado, Arizona Capitol Times)

The overflow homeless shelter near the Capitol will remain open at least until February 2017, despite an earlier plan to begin phasing it out this month.

As the Capitol Times previously reported, the makeshift overflow homeless shelters at the Lodestar Day Resource Center and St. Vincent de Paul on the Human Services Campus at 11th Avenue and Jackson Street were set to close at the end of October after phasing down over the next few months.

But St. Vincent de Paul stepped up, asking funders from the county, state and United Way to keep its building open as an overflow shelter through February 2017.

Maricopa County, the Arizona Department of Housing, the Arizona Department of Economic Security and Valley of the Sun United Way will share the costs to keep St. Vincent de Paul open, with each putting in about $60,000.

The building will hold up to 250 people for the coming months, and they will begin moving people staying at the Lodestar building into St. Vincent de Paul shortly, said Stephen Attwood, the chief operations officer at St. Vincent de Paul.

The overflow shelters at the two buildings opened last year after the Men’s Overflow Shelter was closed because it was uninhabitable due to multiple code violations. The buildings aren’t set up as shelters, so people who stay there sleep on thin mats about six inches apart on the floor.

On an average day in July, about 350 people slept on the campus, according to numbers provided by Maricopa County. About 100 of those slept outside on the campus lawn, while 140 men used the Lodestar building and about 100 women and disabled men stayed at St. Vincent de Paul.

“You just can’t put 350 people on the street if there’s any possible way of avoiding it,” Attwood said.

Maricopa County had been footing the bill for the overflow shelters on its own since the end of June. Before that, funding came from both the City of Phoenix, the county’s industrial development authorities and the Arizona Department of Housing, according to Bruce Liggett, the county’s director of human services.

The cost to run both buildings was about $125,000 per month, but St. Vincent de Paul alone will cost about $40,000, Attwood said. St. Vincent de Paul made a “barebones proposal” and will save money by using internal security and reducing overhead costs, he said.

Pushing out the closing date will give the funding organizations more time to move people into permanent supportive housing, a major initiative in progress now. The funders have about 525 placements for permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing, and they’re continuing to find people for those placements, Liggett said.

Because the work to find permanent housing is ongoing, Liggett said St. Vincent de Paul “felt there was just a need to be able to assist those people. (They said), ‘we just think it’s too early to end this, we can do it for another six months.’ … We’re really grateful to them.”

Attwood noted that although about 350 people stayed on the campus on average in July, about 7,000 individuals have spent at least a night there in the past year.

“The problem isn’t going away. We need more temporary shelter space than we have today,” Attwood said.

Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, said her group is pleased St. Vincent de Paul came forward and asked funders to continue the overflow shelter.

“There’s been a lot of progress made on rapid rehousing and moving folks into permanent supportive housing. You can’t just take away the shelter. Everything will still happen in tandem,” Serviss said.

Keeping the shelter open through February will “serve as a continuing resource, as a bridge to housing,” she said.

As for whether six months is long enough to find permanent housing for those who need it, Serviss said the future is unknown, but everyone is making progress.

“Will there be any drop-off? I don’t know, I can’t say. Come February, there’s a potential that we’re advocating for increased funding from the state Legislature,” she said.

Liggett said the funders continue to learn more and more about the population using the shelters, which should help target resources most efficiently. One challenge they’ve had is, when housing becomes available and the shelter tries to find the individuals who could qualify, they may not be at the shelter anymore, he said. But the data collection and targeting efforts are “light years” better than they were when the shelters opened, he said.

“Having temporary approaches is never the right solution, but in the absence of having nothing for the next 6 months, this is a really valuable resource,” Liggett said.

Attwood said other shelters, like Central Arizona Shelter Services on the Human Services Campus, could be expanded to provide more temporary housing options, but it’s often political to discuss expanding shelters. Even if the permanent housing efforts are successful, there will still likely be a need for temporary options, he said.

“The problem will come in February, if the funders don’t re-extend. Then we’ll be faced with a very difficult question, which is, can we put 350 back on the street? … Or do we find some other way, maybe some donors to step forward, until those long-term resources are developed?” Attwood said.

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