When Trent Deweese set out to Phoenix from Tonopah, he did not expect to be sleeping under a bridge his senior year in high school.
He found himself there after a two-year relationship with his girlfriend ended and his parents were unable to help him return home.
Deweese, now 20, turned to his high school counselor who put him in touch with Native American Connections, a Phoenix-based nonprofit agency that offers behavioral-health support and housing.
Deweese said he’s moving into his own apartment at the end of February after going through the agency’s transitional housing program.
“[The program] helped me a lot, and I don’t know where I would be at if I didn’t get to Native American Connections,” he said.
Although the number of people, like Deweese, who have found themselves homeless has increased nationally, transitional housing programs such as the one that helped him are giving way to emergency shelter, even though many homeless agencies believe that transitional housing is an effective tool in combating homelessness.
The 2020 Point-in-Time count, which is a single-night count of people in shelters and on the streets, found that 7,419 people experienced homelessness in Arizona and 3,767 of those individuals were unsheltered.
Federal funding for targeted homelessness assistance has increased every year in the past decade, resulting in a more than 200% increase. However, from 2014 to 2019, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness increased by 20.5% nationally.
The shift away from transitional housing began in 2013 to a policy that incentivized housing assistance with low barriers to entry and no service participation requirements, causing the number of transitional housing beds to fall from 197,192 to 95,446, a decrease of 101,746 beds.
Native American Connections
The nonprofit opened its transitional housing program, Saguaro Ki, in August 2019, and provides 18- to 24-year olds shelter for 18 months.
Deweese was given emergency shelter through the nonprofit for six months before he was assigned a case manager.
During 2019-2020, Native American Connections housed 129 residents, and the average stay was 70 days, according to the agency’s annual report.
Ruben Soliz, youth housing program administrator at Native American Connections, said program models didn’t change drastically when the Covid pandemic hit, but it did affect residents’ efforts in finding long-term employment.
“Several of our youth have experienced some challenges finding what’s going to be permanent gainful employment, so, we’ve had a good number that are getting temp jobs that are going to be sort of high demand,” said Soliz.
The program helped Deweese land an apprenticeship to become a commercial electrician last year, but like everything else, the pandemic stalled those plans temporarily.
He currently works several temp jobs, sometimes holding two at a time. Although he hasn’t found permanent employment, he’s moving out at the end of February to his own apartment after having stayed for the full 18 months.
He said testing, personal protection equipment, and a more dedicated staff have also come as a result of the money received, which substantially helps the emergency housing program due to the higher turnover rates and number of people living there.
Margaret Kilman, senior program manager at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York City-based nonprofit that focuses on advancing housing solutions to help vulnerable people nationwide, said that transitional housing is a useful tool in ending homelessness when effectively used to achieve permanent housing.
“Over the last couple of years there has been some loss of favor in the use of transitional housing as an approach, but I think if they’re done well and if they’re done with an eye toward making sure that folks are as quickly as possible achieving permanent housing, that’s OK,” said Kilman.
The shift in housing solutions now prioritizes homeless assistance based on vulnerability and severity to ensure that people who need it the most get help.
“We always want to think about balancing temporary crisis interventions and our investments in temporary crisis interventions to permanent and long-term solutions,” Kilman said.
She said supportive housing is the best intervention for people who have experienced homelessness for a long time.
The Phoenix City Council has recently approved $4 million in funding from the CARES Act to Human Services Campus and Central Arizona Shelter Services or CASS. CASS will use $2.4 million for 275 beds for its campus while HSC will spend $1.6 million for expanding neighborhood clean up and hiring additional staff for the Brian Garcia Welcome Center, which provides a client-centered approach for homeless adults.
As for Native American Connections, they have been working with Save the Family, UMOM and Pivotal Public Policy on HB2480. The bill, introduced by Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, would increase funding for homeless youth and families, but its effectively dead as it didn’t get a committee hearing by February 28 in its chamber of origin.
The bill proposed support for transitional housing programs and emergency shelter programs like Saguaro Ki and HomeBase.
As for Deweese, he’s grateful for all the help he received from Native American Connections.
As his time comes to a close there, his case managers reassured him he would have a place to stay and find an apartment.
“I didn’t know what I was gonna’ do after,” Deweese said. “I thought I was just gonna’ get kicked out, honestly. But I would panic and freak out and then they were telling me not to worry because they wouldn’t just let me down like that, and it was great that I had chosen the program.”