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Bill helps West Valley homeless seniors

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A Senate bill could lead to converting a hotel into a shelter to cope with a growing population of homeless seniors in the West Valley. 

The bill, SB1514, would allocate $5 million to the Department of Economic Security for the creation of emergency shelter beds for homeless adults 55 and older. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said it would create the West Valley’s first permanent emergency homeless shelter.

According to Maricopa County’s 2020 Point-in-Time report, which counts homeless populations, the number of unsheltered people counted in the West Valley increased 219% from 2017 to 2020, from 139 to 443. 

“There are no shelters in the West Valley region to support this growing need,” Livingston said in a written statement. “Thus, people are camping and more tents are popping up. A shelter will get more folks off the streets.”

The location for the proposed shelter has not been finalized, but options are being explored, including hotels that could be quickly converted into housing. The shelter would provide a safe environment for seniors year-round, helping them with the Veterans Administration and accessing medical care, Livingston said. 

Livingston’s plan for the shelter is inspired by a housing project by Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), the largest and longest-serving homeless shelter in Arizona. In June 2020, CASS opened Project Haven, a hotel-turned-homeless shelter that houses around 85 vulnerable seniors. 

David Livingston

David Livingston

The shelter will only stay open until September 2021, and CASS doesn’t have enough beds to meet the growing demand. SB1514, however, could make the concept permanent, CASS CEO Lisa Glow told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Senate Bill 1514 will not only help us save the lives of the growing number of seniors becoming homeless, it will allow us to begin to tackle the growing crisis for senior citizens who are becoming homeless, most for the first time in their lives, with a better model and a more cost-effective model,” Glow said.

It costs about $10,000 to shelter someone for a year, but if they remain on the streets the cost is $31,000 in public health, police and emergency room services, Glow said. Of the record number of street deaths in Maricopa County last year, one-third of them were people 55 and older, she said. 

Needs for affordable housing and shelter for homeless community members have been rising in Arizona for years. A Maricopa County report shows an 18% increase in unsheltered homeless people from 2019 to 2020.

The rise in homelessness in the Valley reflects national trends spurred by factors like rising housing costs and further impacted by Covid. A 2020 academic study projected 21,295 people experiencing homelessness – 4.5% of the national homeless population – could require hospitalization at a Covid infection rate of 40%.

The study indicated Maricopa County was one of the areas where the homeless population was highest-impacted by Covid in terms of hospitalizations, critical care and fatalities.

Arizona AARP Director Dana Kennedy said issues like affordable housing availability, transportation accessibility and rising cost of living are large contributing factors to seniors becoming homeless, and the need for assistance to seniors in the West Valley goes beyond emergency shelters.

“I think we’ve had a hard time making any leeway regarding legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs, I think SNAP benefits, the food assistance programs, that needs to be increased,” Kennedy said. “I mean, I would like to see more services to prevent somebody from becoming homeless in the first place.”

Last week, the Phoenix City Council approved $4 million in funding from the CARES Act and other sources to support CASS and the Human Services Campus, which is a partnership of 16 organizations that offer services to people experiencing homelessness in Phoenix.

Glow said with CASS unable to keep up with demand for services, regional shelters like the proposed West Valley shelter are needed to help people get into secure housing.

Last year’s version of the bill, SB1283, passed through the Senate 27-3 before the pandemic ended the session. This year, SB1514 has bipartisan sponsorship of over 50 legislators and passed through the Senate by the same margin as last session on February 18. 

“Because this is a region-wide issue, there are on-going conversations between shelter providers and local government leaders across Maricopa County,” Livingston wrote. “This could be a first of many locations to deal with the growing homeless crisis.”

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