As many hunker-down to avoid the coronavirus within the comfort of a home, several thousand people across the Valley of the Sun do not have the same luxury.
The homeless population --- who are at a higher risk for catching illnesses --- remain unprotected while the world is turned upside down fighting against a pandemic.
“Housing is health,” said Family Promise of Greater Phoenix Executive Director Ted Taylor. “What’s happening is when you don’t have housing, you don’t have access to information, to sterile things --- your risk is much higher. A child in homelessness is four times as likely to get sick. This is desperate times for these families.”
Numbers estimate more than 25,800 people in Maricopa County have no place to call home. Of the homeless population, 37% are families, usually a single mom with kids, according to Phoenix Rescue Mission.
The Phoenix area ranks 15th highest in the United States for the number of homeless people in families.
Maricopa Association of Governments for the past six years has conducted a Point in Time Homeless Street Count, where unsheltered homeless is counted on one single night in January. In 2020, 3,767 unsheltered people were counted, with 3,652 considered sheltered.
Those experiencing homelessness move frequently between shelters, overcrowded apartments and temporary arrangements with relatives or friends.
“The bulk of homeless families are doubling up,” Mr. Taylor said, pointing out two families often shelter together in one apartment or unit. “So my argument is, there’s a lot of risk going on right now in the Valley. They’re doing whatever they can to keep a roof over their heads.”
Family Promise of Greater Phoenix partners with churches and synagogues to temporarily house homeless families while helping them regain independence. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, the Scottsdale-based nonprofit organization has been turned on its head.
“We realized when coronavirus came out, seniors, the bulk of our volunteers, would be at-risk. So as a result of that, we had a very tough decision to make,” Mr. Taylor said.
Family Promise suspended three of their networks that were going to local congregations for shelter and food --- affecting a total of 12 families.
Mr. Taylor says the nonprofit is very fortunate to have been able to find an apartment development where Family Promise could place these families. They bought a host of bunk beds, and blow-up mattresses and began housing two families in each two-bedroom apartment.
“We needed to get as many people in that space as we could, and we did exactly that,” Mr. Taylor said.
“First we needed to get the bed capacity up; the second thing we did was to arrange food. Food alone is estimated to cost $500 per night.”
Working with 52 churches and synagogues across the Valley, Family Promise arranged to have food provided to them --- even during social distancing and quarantining.
“Every night congregations deliver food to a bench in front of the Belleview site. They knock on the window and after they leave, we come out and get it,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s hot dinner, breakfast and lunch supplies, every single day. There is a small miracle going on of community partnership to make this happen every single night.”
Dedicated Family Promise staff is running this shelter 24 hours a day. Mr. Taylor says they ramped up their sterilization and cleaning practices, and created best practices for social distancing so the families wouldn’t be co-mingling with one another. If someone does get sick, they have one extra apartment for isolation.
“A multitude of things have gone right amidst all of these uncertainties,” he said.
Dorinda, a grandmother who utilizes the services provided by Family Promise for herself and her grandson, is staying positive during this time.
“I won’t allow myself to freak out, God’s got me,” Dorinda said.
It is Family Promise’s policy to not request or share last names.
Dorinda says Family Promise has provided housing, meals, bus cards and support for her and her grandson.
The coronavirus is creating limitations and challenges for everyone right now --- and even more for the struggling population.
“The Boys and Girls being closed is hard, and being separated from others,” she said. “The inability to be in your own home is hard, and you can’t control who comes in or out. It’s also touchy on the buses as far as keeping your distance.”
Mr. Taylor says finding homeless families is a difficult task, because they often stay hidden.
“Families do not show up on street corners; they’re hard to interact with, and they try to stay hidden,” he said. “The No. 1 risk of families who become homeless is their children will be taken away because they’re considered unfit by the system. It’s very hard to identify by demographic.”
Of families experiencing homelessness, Mr. Taylor says they were in a crisis before the coronavirus.
“I feel we have a responsibility to do everything we can,” he said.
In the West’s Most Western Town, Scottsdale Community Partners is anticipating an increase of need as more people watch their circumstances change due to the coronavirus.
“Right now we have seen a little bit of an increase, and we feel like much more is coming,” said CEO of Scottsdale Community Partners Jenny Adams. “People are starting to be laid off, businesses are starting to shutter. We know we will see a significant increase.”
SCP is a 501(c)3 organization who’s mission is to provide emergency assistance to Scottsdale youth, families and seniors who find themselves in a crisis.
Through a partnership with the City of Scottsdale, SCP is able to provide food, transportation vouchers, prescription co-pay assistance and rent and utility assistance to hundreds of families each year.
In preparation for the needs of Scottsdale, SCP has increased its food box offerings.
“We work with Vista del Camino Food Bank, and we anticipate seeing a big increase of need. One thing we’ve done is we have had --- just because of our size --- people can receive a food box every other month. We’ve increased that to every month for the duration until we get through this,” Ms. Adams said.
“We also provide funding to Paiute Neighborhood Center to assist with food. Other programs, we have a lot, but others we think are going to be highly impacted is rental and utility programs.”
Ms. Adams says the vast majority of citizens who they work with are low-income and poverty level. The U.S. Census Bureau’s available data, dated July 2018, estimates 8% of Scottsdale’s 255,310 residents are living in poverty --- more than 20,000 people.
“We’ve been working very feverishly to increase our fundraising efforts to bring in more funds so as people approach with rental bills, utility bills, we can help them out,” she said.
And, organizations are looking to help SCP. The Rotary Club of Scottsdale has made a $10,000 commitment to Scottsdale Community Partners to help with needs.
On March 21-22, a host of Scottsdale community organizations gathered together at the last minute to host an emergency food and needs drive, spearheaded by Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Rachel Smetana.
“The city was able to facilitate the organization of a food and supply drive in 24 hours with the considerable help faith community and some of our community networks that do a great job communicating. It was a lovely response and it seemed people really welcomed an opportunity to help their neighbors,” Ms. Smetana said.
Due to the rapidly evolving situation of the coronavirus, Ms. Adams says SCP is accepting general donations --- without a specific wish list established.
“Because o the fluidity of the situation, we don’t know what our highest level of need is going to be. That’s kind of where we’re at, at the moment,” she said.
Ms. Adams, who has been with SCP for four and a half years, is the only staff person at the organization.
“I always tell people this is the most important work I’ll ever do in my life. I’ve seen the power of what we can do for people who are facing a crisis. This is what we’re built for,” she said.