‘There Is More to It:’ Shelter Worker on Phoenix’s Growing Tent City

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

By Nicole Macias

October 3, 2022

More than 600 people stay in downtown Phoenix’s homeless shelter every night—and hundreds more sleep in tents on the streets surrounding the shelter.

Under the radiant—and sometimes brutally hot—Arizona sun and located on the sidewalks of Downtown Phoenix rests a growing encampment that shelters people experiencing homelessness. They sleep in tents, use broken furniture, and seek community resources to sustain their basic needs. 

“People say it’s a tent city, but there is more to it,” Kayla Bates, intake specialist at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), a nonprofit organization that provides temporary housing, food, clothing, hygiene products, mental health services, and showers to unsheltered and lower-income people. 

‘This is Not My Home’

Kilyei Fernandez, 22, arrived two weeks ago from Durango, Colorado, because she wanted to attend a 6-month-long spiritual healing program in Phoenix. She could not enroll and became one more unsheltered person in Phoenix.

“The first nights here were difficult because this is not my home,” Fernandez said. “Phoenix is different because it’s a desert. In Colorado, I was surrounded by nature.”

While she lived in Colorado, Fernandez stayed in a hotel for two months. She met a group of friends she considers her family now. They sponsored her transportation to Phoenix.

“I have tried to look for transportation or funding programs that can sponsor a ticket back to Colorado, but I have not been able to,” Fernandez said. “I hope I can find people who can help me here in Phoenix.” 

Not Enough Shelter

The encampment is located next to one of the shelters operated by the CASS, where Fernandez has been able to sleep for a few nights since her one-week arrival. It’s one of the biggest in the country, according to Human Services Campus officials, expanding from 9th to 13th avenues between Jefferson and Jackson streets.

“Even if we can’t do anything for them, we go out of our ways to do the best that we can to figure out ways to better your situation,” said Bates.

CASS provides shelter to at least 600 people and 36 families each night at the Downtown Single Adult Shelter and the Vista Colina Family Shelter. In addition to those staying inside the shelter, more than 800 people sleep in tents on the streets surrounding the shelter.

More than 9,000 people live under different stages of homelessness in Maricopa County, according to the 2022 Point-in-Time Count Report. More than half are unsheltered, and at least 1,000 are children younger than 18. 

People tend to end up unsheltered for a combination of personal crises, including substance abuse, poverty and lack of affordable housing, mental illness, unemployment, divorce, and domestic violence, as reported by Phoenix Rescue Mission. 

Nonprofits Awarded Millions to Help Those in Need

Homelessness has become a top priority for the city of Phoenix as the number of residents with unstable housing has reached an alarming rate in the last years, as reported in the Homeless Strategies Report. The city has awarded almost $20 million to the county, state, and non-governmental organizations to fund homelessness solutions and initiatives.

At least $4 million has gone to CASS, United Methodist Outreach Ministries, Chicanos Por La Causa, Native American Connections, Southwest Behavioral Health, and Community Bridges Inc. These nonprofits have been able to use the funds to provide shelter to seniors, women, medically vulnerable individuals, families, single women, unaccompanied minors, and veterans. 

More than $1 million in federal awards were granted to CASS alone, according to its Financial Statements Report. 

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