Churches try to put together West Valley program for homeless

A homeless encampment in Maricopa County.

By Matt Roy
and Rusty Bradshaw
Independent Newsmedia

In an effort to help ease strain on community services and for those who are homeless, area churches are trying to put together a West Valley program.

The homeless population in the Agua Fria riverbed creates a strain on Sun Cities emergency services agencies and municipalities.

It has become enough of a strain that officials in Youngtown and El Mirage are looking for ways to ease the impact. It might come down to forcing people camped out in the riverbed to leave the area.

“We have gotten letters from property owners asking us to enforce the no trespassing laws,” said Mike LeVault, Youngtown mayor. “We are putting together an action plan with Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to do just that.”

But it is not limited to the riverbed. For those still seeking shelter on empty lots, in concrete culverts and under bridges throughout the community, Lutheran Social Services officials said they’re continuing efforts to try to bring the iHelp shelter services model to the West Valley.

The Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program, better known as iHelp, has been implemented in Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Avondale and Phoenix over the past decade. The program enlists clusters of churches, who promise space on their campuses to provide a safe place for homeless people to live temporarily, while agencies provide wrap-around services, such as job placement, medical referrals, bus passes, housing assistance and connections to other resources.

The goal is to transition those on the street back into sustainable work and housing, according to Connie Phillips, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest president and CEO, who said her agency has been working with the city of Surprise and West Valley congregations to launch the program, but challenges persist.

“We are working toward bringing the program to Surprise and are seeking funding and partners, but the biggest barrier is funding,” Ms. Phillips stated in an email. “We want to start this in the next fiscal year (beginning July 1), have it in place no later than January 2020.”

But it goes farther than Surprise. Some congregations considering the program include Church of the Psalms, 14808 N. Boswell Blvd., Sun City; and Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church, 11025 N. 111th Ave., Sun City, according to Ms. Phillips. Surprise area churches include Desert Steams Church, 10330 N. Cotton Lane, Waddell; and Unitarian Universalist Church, 17540 Avenue of the Arts, Surprise.

While Ms. Phillips included Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 13724 W. Meeker Blvd., Sun City West in the mix of congregations interested in the program, Pastor Steve Beyer said his church is researching a different program.

“We reached out to LSS to help with refugee resettlement,” he said. “We wanted to see what we could do financially or in others ways opposed to hosting refugees.”

The refugee program involves churches hosting refugees until they can be connected with their host families.

“Our facilities are too limited to allow us to host refugees,” Pastor Beyer said.

However, Shepherd of the Desert in Sun City hosted an LSS iHelp presentation Feb. 6.

“We have been trying to get a pod of churches for the iHelp program,” said Cliff Wagner, Shepherd of the Desert spokesman.

He visited an existing iHelp program in Goodyear and found it to be working well. Under that program, churches host homeless overnight and provide a hot meal, Mr. Wagner explained. Sometimes, they also provide a sack lunch the next day before they move on to more permanent housing.

“They (Goodyear program) also refer them to other resources,” Mr. Wagner said.

To start the program, LSS must enlist 10 churches to participate; but with more than a dozen approached with the proposal over the past year, only five churches are actively considering joining the effort, according to Ms. Phillips. Each of 10 partnering churches could accommodate up to 10 individuals for a two- to four-week stay, constituting a potential 100-bed capacity if implemented locally, she added.

Church officials interested in participating are encouraged to call Mr. Sanders at 480-284-1081.

Once enough campuses commit to participating — bringing donated shelter space and hundreds of volunteers online — organizers will still need ongoing funding to coordinate and sustain the effort, she explained.

“As an organization we have a limited capacity to bring on another program. We must be able to identify start up and sustainable funding to adequately staff the services,” Ms. Phillips stated. “Without professional staffing to work with the volunteers, the program will not be able to provide support for people to move from homelessness.”

Robert Sanders, LSS emergency services regional director, already oversees programs in Mesa and the Southwest Valley and agreed more funding is needed to expand services.

While charity officials seek sustainable funding sources, LSS officials continue to recruit participating churches, he explained.

“The response has been good and congregations seem to be excited about the possibility of the program starting in Surprise,” Mr. Sanders stated in an email. “Several congregations are checking with their church councils prior to moving forward.”

Once implemented — should funding and church support materialize — the iHelp program would not conflict with the Surprise’s amended urban camping ordinance and could potentially count as available shelter capacity for West Valley municipalities seeking to enforce such measures. Maricopa County, which has jurisdiction in the unincorporated communities of Sun City and Sun City West, does not have an urban camping ordinance.

While it is not the case in every state, Arizona allows private ownership of rivers, according to Mr. LeVault. Therefore, property owners in the riverbed can take measures to force the homeless off their property, he added.

While the recent court decision prevents cities from forcing homeless campers into religious programs, the iHelp program does not require religious activities as a prerequisite for participation, Mr. Sanders stated.

Sun City West resident Judy Reed, who worked 25 years on homeless and housing issues in the Seattle area, believes there are solutions available and urges officials to help the homeless. Via email, she shared information on the Tiny House project in Seattle, an effort that built a small village in West Seattle for homeless individuals. The effort gained support from Seattle area service clubs, among others.

Ms. Reed also shared information about a Hawaii project that built a rest stop designed to give homeless basic hygiene services. The rest stop is city- and county-funded, along with area nonprofit organizations.

Homeless in the riverbed are impacting services for both towns adjacent to the riverbed between Grand and Olive avenues, and they are impacting emergency service agencies, particularly fire and medical departments, along the riverbed throughout the Northwest Valley.

Sun City Fire and Medical Department, which serves an area of the riverbed from Olive Avenue to Beardsley Road, and the Arizona Fire & Medical Authority in Sun City West, serving riverbed areas north of Beardsley Road, make numerous calls for service into the riverbed. Most of the Sun City calls are made from the Quik Trip or Circle K stores in Youngtown and emergency crews meet the caller at that location, according to Ron Deadman, Sun City fire chief. Other times they have very little direction to follow.

“There have been times where we send one crew north and one crew south until we find the problem,” Mr. Deadman said.

There are many problems related to running these types of calls, according to Eric Kriwer, AFMA deputy chief. They occur mainly in the evening hours, with very vague directions. The river bottom has a difficult access with sandy and uneven surfaces that require access by a four-wheel drive vehicle or often by foot, he explained.

Sun City’s fire officials also call for law enforcement escorts, but sometimes they have to wait past what they believe is appropriate for the type of call they are responding to, according to Mr. Deadman.

“In the last month we have had one cardiac arrest and one childbirth in the riverbed,” he said.

During a Jan. 22 joint venture with Maricopa Association of Governments for a “point-in-time” head count of homeless in the riverbed, Mr. LeVault said 18 people were contacted. There were some encampments that appeared occupied but people were not present, and officials were told there were people living there.

“We estimate there are about 25 people living in the riverbed on the Youngtown side between Grand and Olive avenues,” he said. “We did notice a number of encampments that had been abandoned, but where they went we don’t know.”

The homeless population in Arizona appears to be declining. According to statistics on the National Alliance To End Homelessness website,, there were 14,000 homeless in the state in 2007, but that number dropped to 8,947 by 2017. In Maricopa County, the 2017 homeless count was 5,605, according to the NATEH website stats.

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