Jan 25, 2023 - Real Estate

Phoenix counts people on the streets as metro's unhoused population jumps

A woman in the driver's seat of a car.

Chandler Neighborhood Resources director Leah Powell scans a Walmart parking lot for people experiencing homelessness. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

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.

A woman standing next to a tent.
Chandler community navigator Quiana Thorvund checks a roadside tent for occupants. Photo: Jessica Boehm/Axios

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.

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