Homelessness continues to be an ongoing issue in Maricopa County, and while the community has made strides toward combating the number of individuals and families facing homelessness, there are still gaps in the system that we must fill in order to help this growing population. This White Paper provides an overview of the current state of homelessness in the Valley while highlighting strengths and weaknesses in the system and outlining methods the Valley of the Sun United Way and the surrounding volunteer community can continue to utilize to address necessary gaps.
Maricopa County is experiencing an increase in the number of people facing homelessness, according to recent street counts. While there are many factors contributing to the increase, the United Way and our partners primarily attribute the increase to three main factors: 1) an increase in county population (last year, Maricopa County was the nation’s fastest-growing); 2) a reduction in affordable housing opportunities and an increase in housing requirements; and 3) better accuracy and methodology in tracking homeless numbers.
Last year, rent prices across Maricopa County climbed an average of $150 per month, while housing availability tightened to just 5 percent. Furthermore, countywide, only 20 affordable and available rental units exist in Maricopa County for every 100 extremely low-income renters. This, coupled with the fact that landlords are increasingly requiring background and income qualifications and decreasingly accepting vouchers or rental assistance, is making finding affordable housing even more of a struggle for many renters, which in turn leads to longer shelter stays and inefficiencies in the current sheltering system.
Closing the Gaps: Advances in the Last Decade to Address Homelessness
Over the last decade, the county and community advocates have worked together to take a collaborative approach to combating homelessness in the Valley. Ten years ago, “managing homelessness” in Maricopa County essentially meant filling beds at disparate shelters, each of which maintained its own intake policies and data collection procedures with minimal sharing at the county level. There was little delineation between emergency, episodic and chronic homelessness, which meant that all homeless individuals and families essentially “competed” for few available beds. In other words, there were no rapid rehousing options for individuals who needed more than a nightly bed and less than a permanently supported solution.
Nowadays, the county and community focuses on the needs of the homeless individual while providing solutions specific to those needs. Volunteers now meet homeless populations where they are — through programs such as Project Connect — as opposed to focusing on those in limited shelter beds, and the community strives to transition individuals and families out of homelessness and into stable independence within 60 days through providing:
- Diversion – immediate, one-time solutions such as rent, bus tickets home or utilities assistance
- Emergency Shelter – temporary, short-term shelter during housing crises, pending long term solutions
- Bridge Housing / Transitional Housing – interim housing and support services to provide stability for permanent housing
- Rapid Rehousing – short-term housing and services to stabilize situation within 60 days
- Permanent Supportive Housing – a Housing First approach, focused on chronically homeless individuals providing long-term housing with behavioral, mental health and medical services
With that said, there’s still more to be done to meet the demand of serving the homeless population in our communities.
The Power of Philanthropic Investment
While homelessness in the Valley continues to be an unfortunate reality, the efforts of the United Way and its donors, volunteers and community members are effectively shortening the amount of time individuals and families remain homeless while providing long-term solutions that reduce the chances of a return to homelessness. In addition to securing the targeted 1,600 Permanent Supportive Housing units a year earlier than anticipated, philanthropic efforts and investments helped ensure the coverage of operational costs associated with those units and addressed other key issues combating Maricopa County’s homeless population, such as the closing of the men’s overflow shelter and the launch of the Rapid Rehousing program for singles experiencing homelessness.
The United Way will continue to work in close conjunction with neighborhood groups, volunteers, donors, state and federal agencies and elected officials as it works to combat the issue of countywide homelessness.