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AZ needs courageous leaders, not rescuers, saviors

A man sits on a Phoenix street Jan. 25, 2022. The photo was taken as part of the Maricopa Association of Governments’ Point in Time Homelessness Street Count. Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments.

I’m fortunate to have another day, to wake up on the top side of the dirt. 

The thousands of people experiencing homelessness every single night in Maricopa County don’t have the same certainty of waking up. As the Covid positivity rate plummets (thank goodness), we await news that we can relieve some restrictions.  

Amy Schwabenlender (Elaine Kessler Photography)

Even though it is “winter” on the calendar, Phoenix is fickle. We know “summer” is quickly on its way, outracing the official June 21 start date. And we know – and the county public health department affirms – that summer heat is more deadly than Covid.  

We are in planning mode, looking at our spaces, counting our supplies. The number of unsheltered people across the entire region is rising. We recently saw more than 900 individuals unsheltered in our immediate neighborhood three weeks in a row. Nine hundred plus about 600 sheltered on campus meant more than 1,500 people experienced homelessness in one area of Phoenix, the highest number ever. 

A sheltering facility we have been working on for some time is nearly ready to open. The big reveal and ribbon cutting will happen in the next few weeks. The Covid capacity plan was 100. Now we will look at ways to potentially increase the number of people inside, both for daytime respite and overnight shelter. 

The cycle of planning for heat sadly continues. Our community never gets ahead of the curve. We could blame Covid for the past two years, but Phoenix has been hot forever. We can’t kid ourselves and be surprised. Just like we can’t be surprised by the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness. 

All forces and dynamics in Arizona, Maricopa County and Phoenix have been working against efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Population has consistently increased for decades. Rents have soared. Housing affordability has decreased and housing production has not kept pace with demand (at all affordability levels). Income has not increased to match the rising cost of living. Subsidized housing programs through the federal government have not matched the change in population. 

Alas, I am not surprised by the increase in homelessness. All of this was happening pre-Covid and the economic repercussions from the pandemic are exacerbating the situation. With some policymaker conversations seemingly “blaming the victim,” it’s easy to put the onus on the people experiencing homelessness and on the service organizations responding to the crisis of being unsheltered and unhoused.  

Allowing people with power, those who make decisions and set policy, to continue blaming the victim means they will not/cannot/do not blame themselves. This behavior deflects. And if they actually create something helpful, it leads to a sense of being a rescuer or a savior. 

We don’t need rescuers and saviors to address homelessness and the housing crisis. We need courageous leaders who will listen to those with lived experience and people on the front lines. We need to implement evidence-based best practices and proven solutions.  

We need housing. 

Now is the season in Arizona for state-level policy. Now is the time to pay attention to the committees and the votes. If you want to help, please follow Arizona Housing Coalition (azhousingcoalition.org) and Wildfire (wildfireaz.org).  

  • Amy Schwabenlender is executive director at the Human Services Campus. 

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