Phoenix counts people on the streets as metro's unhoused population jumps
More than 1,500 volunteers spread across metro Phoenix early Tuesday to find and count all the people experiencing homelessness in the Valley.
- They looked in encampments and alleys, along canals and railroad tracks, outside closed storefronts and in desert washes, at parks and in shelters.
Why it matters: The results of the annual point-in-time count will show whether a flood of federal pandemic-era money made a dent in housing the Valley's homeless population, which has surged since 2017.
State of play: The funding allowed Phoenix-area governments and nonprofits to spend millions on rental assistance, foreclosure prevention, hotel vouchers and new shelters.
- St. Vincent de Paul opened a 200-bed shelter near the airport, the Human Services Campus added 100 beds and the city of Phoenix has provided over $30 million in rental assistance since 2022's count.
- The Valley increased emergency shelter capacity by 23% between September 2021 and September 2022, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).
Yes, but: It's unclear whether these efforts decreased the metro's overall unhoused population.
- Chandler Neighborhood Resources director Leah Powell said her team used hotel vouchers to help 156 families and almost all moved into permanent housing following their stays.
- Yet the number of people in need of assistance hasn't decreased in her area, indicating the issue persists or is worsening.
How it works: Each January, MAG organizes a count of people without homes.
- In addition to taking a census of those in shelters, volunteers scan sidewalks, parks, canals and alleyways to find people sleeping outside.
- Volunteers gather demographic information from individuals and ask them why they are experiencing homelessness. They also provide information about shelter and services.
Reality check: The survey is an imperfect tool, and largely believed to undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness.
- For example, if someone stayed on a friend's couch Monday night, they wouldn't be counted, even if they otherwise sleep on the street.
- If a person finds an abandoned house or other place to sleep, they won't be tallied.
- If someone leaves their encampment before dawn, counters have no way of locating them.
Be smart: Other tools must be used in conjunction to get an accurate assessment of the issue, MAG regional homelessness program manager Katie Gentry told us.
Tuesday was my second time observing the point-in-time count.
- Last time, I went with a team in Sunnyslope, a Phoenix neighborhood with one of the highest rates of homelessness.
- For this year's count, I wanted to report on the suburbs, where homelessness more than doubled in recent years but remains less concentrated and visible than in the central city.
What happened: I went out with a small group of city employees south of downtown Chandler, a few miles from where I grew up.
- We found six people in our 6-square-mile route, a fairly low number given Chandler served more than 400 people experiencing homelessness last fiscal year.
- Our zone was heavily residential, which may have played a role, along with the chilly weather, in our low count.
What they're saying: Community navigator Quiana Thorvund spends most days canvassing the city and talking with people experiencing homelessness, but she had trouble locating many of them on Tuesday.
- She said unhoused people usually find abandoned buildings or somewhere tucked away from the elements — and out of plain sight — during extreme weather.
Our thought bubble: Our phones showed freeze warnings, the grass in the parks was coated with ice and the few people we came across were wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets.
- Understandably, we pay more attention to the danger of heat in Phoenix, but cold can also be deadly, too, especially for people living without shelter.
- At least two unhoused people died of hypothermia last year, according to Maricopa County medical examiner data.
More Phoenix stories
No stories could be found
Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Phoenix.