Homeless services providers are hoping this is the year that the Legislature will dedicate significant funds to meet Arizona’s growing needs for shelters and other programs.
In the first month of the legislative session, lawmakers introduced a flurry of bills.
Many of them, introduced by Democrats, are not expected to gain traction. But some have bipartisan support and could result in millions of dollars in dedicated funding to help the tens of thousands of Arizonans currently experiencing homelessness — and the tens of thousands more who could fall into homelessness once COVID-19 eviction moratoriums expire later this year.
Here’s what to watch.
Ducey rejects homeless providers’ request
Eight of the top leaders of homeless programs in Arizona sent Gov. Doug Ducey a letter in December asking him to include at least an additional $5 million for homeless services in his budget proposal.
The state spends about $6 million on homeless services each year. Only $873,000 of that is state funding. The rest is from federal grants.
This money is allocated to homeless shelters throughout the state to assist with the everyday operations of running a shelter.
In the letter, they said that providers received temporary funding through the CARES Act, which allowed them to shelter more people in 2020.
The money was temporary — but the increased number of people seeking homelessness services is not, they said. Research by the University of Arizona projects a 30% rise in homelessness across Arizona because of the pandemic and corresponding eviction crisis.
“The rising number of people becoming homeless is pushing us to our limits and significantly more ongoing state government support is needed,” the leaders said.
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Although the pandemic has heightened the need, the leaders said the state has been underfunding the state’s homeless system for years.
Funding for homeless services, allocated through the Arizona Department of Economic Services, has not increased for 13 years, despite a significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness during that time.
“Put simply, funding is needed to help us on the front lines to save people who are currently living on the streets or who will soon be faced with no choice but the streets. As front line providers, we know what works to help people. And, importantly, we have the infrastructure in place to help people get back into housing with support — we just need more resources,” the leaders said.
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Ducey’s budget proposal did not include an increase for homeless services funding.
In an email, the governor’s spokesperson CJ Karamargin said the state spends nearly $100 million in programs related to housing assistance and homelessness.
The majority of those funds, however, go toward rental assistance, foreclosure prevention and housing vouchers — not homeless services.
Karamargin did not address why the governor has not increased funding for homeless services and did not respond to the letter from the homeless providers.
Central Arizona Shelter Services CEO Lisa Glow said there is still a possibility that their request could make it into the final budget that will be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor this spring.
Glow said this money is important because her organization and others have the capacity to shelter more people, but they don’t have the funding to operate new shelter programs.
Bill would fund West Valley senior shelter
Glow also is pushing a bill that would allocate funds to open a homeless shelter for people 55 and older in the West Valley.
On any given night, people 55 or older take up about 40% of the 450 emergency shelter beds at CASS, Glow said.
The new room with private beds for patients experiencing homelessness to recuperate after being released from the hospital is seen at Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix. The special room was added to the facility after The Arizona Republic reported on hospitals dropping patients experiencing homelessness off onto the street.
Glow has been advocating for a separate shelter for seniors experiencing homelessness that can better serve the needs of older people, get them away from the dangerous street conditions faster and protect them from the elements and people who take advantage of them.
She got the chance to pilot the idea with COVID-19 relief funding provided by Phoenix earlier this year.
CASS rented 65 rooms in a north Phoenix hotel and began placing the most vulnerable seniors in private rooms with their own bathrooms. The organization recently expanded the program with 20 additional rooms.
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Caseworkers and medical professionals check in with residents weekly. CASS staff checks in daily and delivers meals.
From June-December, CASS served 157 seniors and vulnerable adults at the hotel, dubbed Project Haven. More than 65% of them have left the hotel program for permanent housing, according to a CASS report.
The program is funded through July 2021, but Glow hopes that with funding from the state, a permanent version of Project Haven can open in the West Valley, where unsheltered homelessness has increased more than 200% since 2016.
“What we’re talking about is a closed model of specialized housing to get people off the streets,” Glow said. “Our hope is to take the prototype of Project Haven hotel and have a permanent location for those highly vulnerable seniors.”
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, introduced a bill last year that would have allocated $5 million for a 200-bed senior shelter in the West Valley. The bill got some traction early in the session but was derailed because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Glow said Livingston plans to introduce a similar bill again this year. Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, already has introduced a version of the bill in the House.
“We need to act now and have something permanent. We need many more permanent things. This is one important step,” Glow said.
Bill would create new funding stream for youth, family homelessness
Housing advocates are trying once again to find a dedicated revenue stream to support families and youth experiencing homelessness.
Two years ago, Native American Connections pushed a bill that would have allowed the Arizona Department of Revenue to collect certain taxes from out-of-state real estate investors. Those investors were paying capital gains taxes in their home state instead of Arizona, where they had purchased property.
The goal was to take the new revenue collected by the state and direct it toward shelter, transitional housing and rental assistance for youths and families experiencing homelessness.
When lawmakers passed the state budget in 2019, they included the portion of the bill that allows the Department of Revenue to collect the taxes from out-of-state investors, but they didn’t require the money to be spent on youth and family homelessness, Native American Connections lobbyist Kristen Boilini said.
This year, the organization is hoping the state will funnel the new revenue into the Housing Trust Fund and dedicate as much as $10 million to youth and family homelessness.
About five years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut funding for transitional housing to focus more attention on permanent housing, a strategy federal officials said was cheaper and more effective.
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Native American Connections CEO Diana “Dede” Yazzie Devine said that the move by federal officials removed a major funding source for her organization’s youth homelessness programs, which is why the organization started pursuing a new revenue stream from the state.
Devine said many youth and families experiencing homelessness don’t need permanent supportive housing — they need temporary assistance to build their financial literacy and transition back into traditional housing. That’s what the new funding source would allow her organization and others to provide, she said.
“We know that if we can intervene now … we’re going to stop their homeless trajectory and they won’t be in our chronic homeless system. It’s actually an intervention point where you can really turn their lives around,” Devine said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, would dedicate the new revenue stream to homeless youth and families.
He said similar bills in the past have received bipartisan support, so he is hopeful that the House leadership will allow his bill to move forward.
“It would be a travesty if we let this bill sit on a desk and never be heard or assigned to a committee,” Cano said.
Coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-694-1823. Follow her on Twitter @jboehm_NEWS.
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AUTHOR: Jessica Boehm