By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
While the number of homeless people living on Valley streets has increased dramatically over the past six years, county and local officials are working to find shelter and long-term solutions for those in need.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors last week announced new funding for a raft of initiatives, applying what they describe as a regional approach to the important issue.
“We realize the need for regional solutions to end homelessness and our focus continues to be on making our dollars stretch further so we can have a real impact,” stated Maricopa County Chairman Bill Gates, who represents District 3, in a July 31 release. “By working with cities and towns that are also making sizable investments, we provide greater support for those who need it.”
The board this summer approved $2 million in funding from county and federal sources aimed at bolstering evidence-based programs to address homelessness and unemployment and improve public safety through efforts to reduce recidivism, according to the release.
Homelessness has risen significantly over the past six years, based on the annual point-in-time count conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments in concert with municipal staffers and first responders across the Valley.
The perennial accounting effort — mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — involves canvassers, who go out into neighborhoods and city streets, as well as into riverbeds and under bridges, to personally meet and talk with homeless people, gathering data to get an accurate snapshot of the problem.
This year’s count, conducted Jan. 22, revealed a 5% increase overall compared to last year — from 6,298 individuals to 6,614.
But more significantly, the number of homeless people living without shelter shot up 22% over the same period from 2,618 to 3,188. Since the 2014 count, the number of unsheltered homeless has more than tripled.
Some initiatives identified by the county board include:
- Hand in Hand is a collaboration between the Maricopa County Human Services department, Maricopa County Correctional Health Services and Native American Connections, which seeks to reduce recidivism by connecting justice-involved homeless individuals with supportive services to address housing, physical and mental health, and resource navigation services while in jail and after release.
- Diversion strategies with the Human Services Campus Coordinated Entry program aim to quickly resolve homelessness by helping individuals identify immediate alternate housing that is safe and appropriate
- A new county workforce development coordinator will work to help those who have recently achieved stable housing to find and keep employment and avoid become homeless again.
- Expanded partnerships with the cities of Avondale and Surprise will increase shelter options.
Board vice chairman and District 4 representative Clint Hickman praised the efforts to address growing needs in the West Valley.
“Getting people off the streets and connecting them with affordable housing and jobs is an important piece of building safe, healthy communities,” Mr. Hickman stated. “I’m especially glad to see the county investing resources and building partnerships to get people housed in the West Valley, with agreements like those with Avondale and Surprise.”
The county recently passed on $100,000 in federal funds to the city of Surprise, where officials are using the money to create shelter services, which may for the first time provide an option for unsheltered people in the West Valley.
The that end, city officials issued a request for proposals and has awarded the contract to Lutheran Social Services. The nonprofit agency has been working for more than two years to launch the iHelp service model in the area.
Seth Dyson, director of Surprise’s Human Services & Community Vitality department, said the new funding will breath life into what has been a slowly developing process.
“We’ve been engaged with Lutheran Social Services for the last couple of years and they’ve gone and tried to see what the capacity there is for a potential iHelp program out here,” Mr. Dyson said. “The first year was kind of an assessment. The second year was capacity building and it was determined that there is opportunity, from both those they interviewed that are experiencing homelessness and from some in our faith communities that were open to this particular model.”
He said working with LSS is a natural fit, since the agency has already been working to build an interfaith coalition to launch the program locally.
“We’ve partnered with Maricopa County and with support from Maricopa County Human Services we were able to receive a grant for iHelp specifically to put on temporary shelter services,” Mr. Dyson said. “We’re not the direct service experts, so we’re passing that money through to the market to see if anyone will be willing to run it.”
He said the grant and subsequent contract with LSS will allow that organization to hire a full-time coordinator to focus on a broad range of solutions in the West Valley.
“We’re not just interested in just shelter services. We’re interested in an actual program that will help bring people in, walk them through getting them access to services and, ultimately, get them into housing and stable lives. It takes that [coordinator] through case management to hold the person accountable,” Mr. Dyson said.
He said in order to join, clients will be required to sign a commitment to participate fully in the program, which – in addition to meeting immediate food and shelter needs – provides wrap-around services aimed at getting those in need off the street for good.
“If someone wants to come in and have a free place to stay and maybe get some food from the churches, that’s not the program,” Mr. Dyson explained. “This is a program meant for those who want to get help, who are committed to working with a case manager on those next steps.”
Those next steps can include facilities to meet immediate needs, such as clean clothes and hygiene facilities. But also, getting mentally, physically and economically ready to find a sustainable job and housing. Some crucial services include medical referrals, bus passes, housing assistance, job placement and benefits coordination.
Mr. Dyson said officials plan to launch the program in the fall and be fully operational by January. The federal grant will, in addition to affording a full-time coordinator, purchase supplies and a van for transporting program participants around to the various housing and service delivery sites, as well as establishing program evaluation and accountability measures.
The iHelp program has been successfully implemented in other parts of the Valley over the past decade, including in Tempe and Chandler. The Tempe program, for example, houses up to 40 homeless people every Wednesday night.
While the West Valley version of iHelp is yet in its infancy, officials and program planners are working to establish a network of churches to be able to serve up to a dozen homeless individuals nightly by the start of next year.
Mr. Dyson said the program will eventually serve Surprise, El Mirage, Youngtown and Peoria.
“Lutheran Social Services is meeting with some of the local faith communities and talking to them about the opportunity to host one night a month or two nights a month or one night per week. The intended goal is to launch in October, which is exciting. We’re finally getting there,” Mr. Dyson added.