Six cities, one county have plans to use state funds to help homeless

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A large homeless encampment is shown in Phoenix on Aug. 5, 2020. Now six Arizona cities and one county that have immediate plans to house the homeless are going to be dividing up $20 million in state funds. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Six cities, one county have plans to use state funds to help homeless

Six Arizona cities and one county that have immediate plans to house the homeless are going to be dividing up $20 million in state funds.

For Tucson, Mayor Regina Romero said that means a $2.7 million grant to buy the 67-room Knights Inn on South Craycroft Road.

Scottsdale will be use its $940,000 to extend the contract it has with the owner of a hotel in its community.

Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said his city, in line for $929,000, is upgrading its city-run shelter and adding new outreach specialists to help people locate permanent housing.

And in Flagstaff, which is getting $840,000, Mayor Becky Daggett said the city will partner with local providers to facilitate transitional housing and move-in assistance for households experiencing homelessness.

And there are dollars also going out to Mesa, Phoenix and Coconino County.

State Housing Director Joan Serviss said Wednesday the decision to give that money to these communities — and funds for the other cities to the exclusion of others — does not represent a judgment about the merits of their proposals.

Some of that, she told Capitol Media Services, is that the requests totaled more than $46 million, more than double what her agency had available in immediate grants.

That forced some prioritization for the available $20 million. And one of the key factors, Serviss said, is how quickly a community could make use of the funds.

She said the also-rans have another shot later at a separate $40 million that will become available later this year.

Arizona already has a Housing Trust Fund, which got a new $150 million infusion from the Legislature for the coming fiscal year on top of $60 million this year. Those dollars can be used for a broader array of programs including helping keep people in their homes and underwriting the cost of construction of new affordable housing.

But lawmakers and Gov. Katie Hobbs, acknowledging the large number of those already on the street, created a separate Homeless Shelter and Services Fund to deal with that problem. And quickly.

What that meant, Serviss said, is those who already were ready to spend the cash got first crack.

“Recognizing the sense of urgency, we really wanted to focus on quick occupancy housing solutions,” she said. And that specifically includes converting available hotels.

Tucson Mayor Romero said the concept is not new for her community. She said the city already has purchased four other facilities using federal Covid relief funds.
More to the point, Romero said providing actual hotel rooms — versus some sort of congregate housing — has proven successful at moving people into more permanent solutions, with 639 individuals in the last 18 months who now are in their own residences.

“So we are wanting to continue expanding the program,” she said.

“Knights Inn became available,” Romero said, with plans to close on the deal at the end of July. “The proposal comes from us being ready.”

That readiness, said Serviss, made all the difference. Still, that didn’t mean any community got all it sought.

Tucson, for example, sought $6.8 million. Romero said the city had plans to spend the difference on not just housing but other “wrap-around” services including grants to nonprofit organizations to help those who are homeless get back on their feet.

Serviss said all the communities, both those who got money this time and those who did not will get another chance to go after that $40 million that becomes available after July 1.

The entire $60 million, she said, is designed to deal with what she called “kind of a perfect storm of unsheltered homelessness.”

In Phoenix, for example, the city is dealing with a court ruling requiring it to evict those living on the streets in what’s been called “The Zone,” an area outside of Central Arizona Shelter Services just east of the state Capitol. A judge concluded that the city, in allowing up to 900 people to camp out at any one time, was ignoring the fact that it was creating a public nuisance for nearby residents and businesses.

Then there was the expiration of Title 42, the federal law that allowed the government to immediately deport some asylum applicants. That resulted in an initial rush of people across the border who, once in Arizona, often had nowhere else to go.

And a number of “sober living homes” also have been closed, some of that in the wake of moves by the state to crack down on fraud by the operators of these facilities. That put many residents out on the street.

Romero said Tucson made a big push into providing individual housing, versus congregate shelters, during Covid, as there were a substantial number of unused hotel rooms as tourism dried up. And the mayor said the city saw immediate results.

“What we saw with that model is it was working,” she said.

“We wanted to stabilize people with housing first,” Romero said. “We were able to move people from homelessness to the hotels to much more permanent supportive housing, and then transition them with vouchers into permanent housing.”

But the experience came with another lesson.

“Renting a room is very expensive,” she said. And that, Romero said, led to her suggestion that the city instead purchase hotels.

Still, the mayor said, the city still uses vouchers as necessary.

The decision to fund programs to get people into housing comes amid ongoing debates about whether such a move is premature until other issues related to homelessness are first addressed. These range from reducing harmful behaviors like drug addiction and mental health issues to helping people find jobs and increase their incomes.

Tucson has settled on the “housing first” approach.

According to the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the idea is to make housing available without first requiring people to have a job or participate in programs to deal with behavioral health or substance abuse issues.

“Research shows that people are best able to benefit from these services and make personal changes to improve their housing stability after they have a permanent roof over their head,” the agency’s web site says. It also says that approach acknowledges that each person’s experience is different and that everyone, regardless of housing status, has a right to make his or her own decisions.

“This includes where to live, what types of services to participate in and where, and the support to make their own decisions about employment and personal goals,” according to the department.

Romero, for her part, said she believes there must be different options for people.

“Some people say ‘housing first,’ some people say ‘treatment first,’ ” she said. “I say whatever works for the people that need the help.”

The governor, in a prepared statement, said the combination of the Homeless Shelter and Services Fund coupled with the record $150 million infusion into the Housing Trust fund shows “we are making real progress toward ensuring affordable housing for every Arizonan.”