Scottsdale officials defend hotel shelter program

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Scottsdale officials defend hotel shelter program

A Republican on the House Appropriations Committee promised on Sept. 13 that next year’s state budget would include provisions preventing municipalities from enacting hotel shelter programs similar to ones established in California and New York using state funds.

“Make no mistake about it, we’re going to approach this (homelessness) with compassion, but we’re also going to approach this with the seriousness and the clarity that we have seen,” said Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Budgetary Funding Formulas hearing in Scottsdale. “We cannot rely on fantasies from failed policies in other states. We have to look at the issue straight on.”

hotel, shelter, homeless, Scottsdale, Gress, David Ortega
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix

The mission of the legislative hearing was to examine a city of Scottsdale program that converts 10 hotel rooms into shelter for homeless individuals. The city established the program in 2021 and city officials say most adult participants secure housing within 30 to 90 days.

Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega said during the hearing that he took issue with attempts from some opponents to the city’s program to characterize homeless individuals as people with drug and alcohol problems or suffering from mental illnesses.

“We have to realize that the unhoused population is a wide spectrum,” Ortega said.

He also said the city’s program serves Scottsdale homeless veterans and single mothers with children. The program caught Gress’ attention in July after the City Council approved a plan to use some of the hotel shelter rooms to house individuals from “The Zone” encampment in Phoenix and residents affected by Title 42.

Gress intervened with a letter to the Department of Housing, which is funding the program, asking if the city could use funds to house Title 42 affected individuals or people from “The Zone.” The department confirmed to Gress the program would not be used in that way and Ortega said during the legislative hearing the program hasn’t served any of those individuals.

David Ortega, Scottsdale, homeless residents, Rio Verde
Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega

“There’s a long waiting list,” Ortega said. “We have our hands full with Scottsdale residents before we even start reaching into the criticism of whether they came from ‘The Zone’ or whether you want to talk to Congress in the future about changing rules on whatever Title 42 is.”

Erica Sandberg, a freelance journalist and author from San Francisco, spoke during the hearing about her experience covering hotel housing programs in San Francisco that she called “blight crime scenes” and “morgues.”

“The people who are supposed to get help do not get help. The help that they need is medical, psychiatric, and substance use almost across the board,” Sandberg said. “So if you’re going to put resources into helping this incredibly important problem, put them there.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported at least 166 people fatally overdosed in city-funded hotels between 2020 and 2021 and reported “disastrous results” with little oversight or results.

Jared Meyer, a senior adviser with the Cicero Institute, cited during the hearing a 2019 study conducted by the California Policy Lab at UCLA. He said it found that a mental health “concern” affected 78% of the homeless population across the U.S. and 75% reported a substance abuse “concern.” But the study notes limitations in its data gathering and says the figures shouldn’t be used to generalize all homeless people.

Clinical service records from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health cited by the same California Policy Lab researchers estimates 20% of individuals participating in street outreach services had a clinical diagnosis of serious mental illness within the previous 12 years.

Jeff Taylor, an advocate for homelessness issues and a member of former Gov. Doug Ducey’s substance abuse task force, said both Ortega and Gress were right with their approaches on the issue because they were talking about two different groups of homeless people.

“You’re talking about families who have been priced out of an apartment,” Taylor said to Ortega during the hearing. “That’s entirely different than the chronically homeless living on the streets of Phoenix. Totally different populations with different needs.”

Taylor urged Scottsdale to use a sobriety verification system for its participants in the hotel housing program. City Human Services Director Greg Bestgen said the city hadn’t implemented any kind of sobriety testing for its hotel program participants while they were in the program. Although he also said the program only accepts sober participants.

Some Scottsdale residents attended the hearing and expressed their concerns that the city’s program would endanger hotel guests or have a negative impact on the city’s tourism industry. The manager of the hotel that has partnered with the city said otherwise.

“This has been a great program for the community and our hotel for the last year,” said Charlie Feeley, general manager of the Independence 47 hotel that has partnered with Scottsdale. “These clients have been nothing but nice and have been extremely appreciative of the program they are in and for the assistance to get back on their feet. We have had zero problems during the entire last year. None of them have been doing drugs or have been an issue at all.”

Feeley said he has encountered problematic guests from a short-term rental property close to the hotel who use drugs on or near his hotel’s property. Ortega also attributed crime outcomes in the city to short-term rentals and urged the Legislature to focus on that as a statewide issue rather than the city’s hotel program.