Mar 10, 2023 - Politics

How homelessness will impact Phoenix council elections

Tents on the side of a road.

An aerial view of people gathered near a homeless encampment on July 21, 2022 near downtown Phoenix. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Homelessness and entangled concerns about crime are emerging as potent political issues in local elections this year, particularly in the West, where the number of people living on the streets has exploded amid an affordable housing crisis and spiraling opioid epidemic.

Catch up quick: Arizona's homeless population jumped 23% between 2020 and 2022, according to a December U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.

  • In metro Phoenix, at least 9,000 people were experiencing homelessness during last year's point-in-time count. Most are living on the street, in alleys or parks.

Why it matters: The worsening problem could be a deciding factor for voters in next week's runoff election in Phoenix's District 8, which covers parts of south and downtown Phoenix and some of the largest homeless encampments in the Valley.

Zoom out: Concerns about homelessness and crime helped lead to the recent ousting of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and are poised to upend mayoral races in Denver and Salt Lake City.

  • The political pressure is leading candidates and elected officials — even prominent Democrats such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — to embrace hard-line approaches, including involuntary commitment and arrests for those who refuse to vacate illegal encampments.

Zoom in: Once apolitical Phoenix residents are getting involved in local elections as homelessness becomes more visible despite decades of city promises to address the problem.

  • Morgan Sailor, a single mother who lives in District 8, said she watched her neighborhood park turn into a homeless encampment seemingly overnight in 2020.
  • She's reported drug use, shootings and threatening behavior to the city on an almost weekly basis and lost hope that local leadership will address the issue.
  • "I never would have gotten involved in something like this if it weren't urgent and dire," she said.

State of play: This frustration has forced incumbent Council Member Carlos Garcia and his challenger Kesha Hodge Washington to focus their race on homelessness.

What they're saying: "I do think we're kind of paying the price for inaction over the last 20 or 30 years," Garcia told Axios Phoenix, acknowledging there's no "quick fix.”

  • He also noted the Phoenix City Council is working to prevent residents of three trailer parks from being evicted.

Washington told Axios Phoenix she wants to increase the housing supply in the city.

  • She said the city needs to change its zoning rules, permit housing vouchers for single-occupancy units like spare rooms in otherwise occupied homes, and work with developers to create more affordable housing.

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