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An update on the compassionate approach to helping those experiencing homelessness in downtown Phoenix

The legalities of the situation are fragile. While the city of Phoenix seeks to meet tenets of an Arizona court order recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress)
Phoenix subcommittee gets update, seeks better communication on ‘The Zone’
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

The city of Phoenix — and its elected leaders — want to do a better job communicating to the outside world its efforts to help those experiencing homelessness found where locals call ‘The Zone,’ and how future efforts are aimed to help combat the myriad factors that swirl around a person leading to a life on the street.

“I think it’s incredible and just seeing the data broken down so clearly where we can visibly see the success of all of your hard work,” said Phoenix Vice Mayor Yassamin Ansari during the Sept. 14 Economic Development and Housing Subcommittee. “Every time I attend a community meeting or on one-on-one and we have a conversation around homelessness, and they are shocked in the best way possible when they hear that 80% of individuals [take shelter].”

Widely reported by radio, television and print media outlets, the recent clean-up efforts that begun in May of this year is the result of a local lawsuit filed against the city by a band of local business owners who successfully argued for the ongoing clean-up efforts in downtown Phoenix between 7th and 16th avenues from Jefferson Street to the railroad tracks.

Of Note: The Phoenix Human Services Campus abuts the area.

The legalities of the situation are fragile. While the city of Phoenix seeks to meet tenets of an Arizona court order recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that homeless people cannot be criminalized for sleeping outside if no alternatives exist.

There are a total of 780 shelter beds in some form of construction within municipal bounds of Phoenix, according to Rachel Milne, assistant director of Housing & Community Development at Maricopa County.

Ms. Milne presented to the subcommittee the morning of Sept. 13 at City Council Chambers, 200 E. Jefferson St, which is an arrow’s shot from ‘The Zone.’

“There is a plan in place to move forward,” she said of better media relations explaining to the outside world of Phoenix social service efforts. “The communications departments does really try to get the word out on what we are actually doing and provide those highlights and let the media drive that, certainly. One component of that media effort with the communications department is to highlight some individuals who have been assisted and who want to talk about it.”

According to the Sept. 14 presentation, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 human beings are experiencing homelessness in the immediate area around the Human Service Campus, 204 S. 12th Ave. On Sept. 5, Phoenix outreach officials counted 441 human beings sleeping on the ground, park benches and mass-transit points of entry.

There are nine more block-by-block homeless clean-up efforts expected by the Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions in the coming weeks that aim to continue to gather an accurate count of those experiencing homelessness in downtown Phoenix.

“I Just want to make sure we keep communicating that effectively,” Vice Mayor Ansari said during the committee meeting. “One question I had about that though is whether or not we have data on how many people continue in those services, and I know we’ve talked about this before, but do we have a plan in place to start tracking success over the long term?”

Ms. Milne explained to the subcommittee that through the last eight engagement efforts with those experiencing homelessness in downtown Phoenix the following outcomes have been realized:

  • Phoenix outreach staff has engaged with 259 individuals on engagement effort days.
  • A total of 206 individuals (80%) accepted indoor shelters or other services upon dignified, respectful communication.
  • A total of 53 individuals (20%) did not accept shelter at indoor locations, which is very typical for those who have spent a significant amount of time on the street.
  • An average of six crew members per effort contributed a total of 291 hours collecting 67.5 tons of debris.

Ms. Milne points out through certain media coverage, word of mouth and even within community partner hallways misconceptions continue to permeate into common knowledge. Those misconceptions are:

  • People are sheltered temporarily — Phoenix officials report this is not true, folks willing to take help have a bed and shelter for as long as they need.
  • Shelter stays are limited to 30 days — this is also not true as Phoenix officials say folks willing to take help have a bed, shelter and services for as long as they need to get themselves back on their feet.
  • Hotel rooms are offered to all — this is not true as each shelter capacity fluctuates and oftentimes contacts result in case-by-case solutions for that individual person.
  • Phoenix efforts have displaced people to other parts of Maricopa County — this is not true as Phoenix officials report what many are witnessing along local thoroughfares is the reality of current economic state of affairs.

Vice Mayor Ansari asked directly about media strategies to better explain efforts undertaken by the municipality.

“I’m wondering when it comes to communications, can you tell me more about your media strategy?” she asked. “The Phoenix story should be out there more … I think the people we’ve helped, those stories are very compelling, right? Whether that be with local press or us, through social media channels, allowing those individuals who are receiving services from our programming to tell their story hopefully it will inspire others.”

Get the full presentation HERE.

A better way to tell the efforts combating homelessness in Phoenix?

For Phoenix Councilwoman Kesha Hodge Washington, she hopes to better understand where misconceptions are coming from.

“I want to make sure I understand where do we find that? Is it primarily within the unsheltered population or do we find that in the community as a whole?” she asked to which Ms. Milne pointed out those thoughts are from all sectors of public life.

“I know a complaint that I hear a lot out in the community — and I want to make sure I heard your response — was that we have no data to show that they’re actually moving. I would love to encourage us to get more affirmative data. Maybe we could keep track of how many individuals we are interacting with compared to how many people are actually being moved?”

Phoenix officials report each person contacted by the Office of Homeless Solutions becomes a data point complete with latitude and longitude to better understand where services are most needed.

“I think we just need data to be able to help our community understand this process is not increasing the effect of our current reality,” Councilwoman Hodge Washington said.

Over the next several weeks nine more clean-up efforts will occur in downtown Phoenix as city leaders explain for the municipality to comply with a court order all blocks of ‘The Zone’ will be closed for camping.

“I see them in the media, we hear them from our individuals,” Ms. Milne said of misconceptions abound. “We hear them even from some of our service partners that we work with so that they are prevalent kind of across-the-board.”

Deputy Vice Mayor Gina Montes reported to the subcommittee Phoenix staff has made effort to alert media partners they are ready and willing to do on-air interviews.

“The one thing I would add is that we have made a concerted effort to make our staff available to interviews in the last several more months more so than we ever had,” she said during the meeting. “I want to acknowledge Rachel for really stepping up in the last several months, she’s been on TV, radio and done interviews with national media and I think has done a great job.”

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