These Former Residents of ‘The Zone’ Are on the Path to Stable Housing

By Penelope Kramer

October 4, 2023

Lenyne Kinley never expected to be homeless.

Then she got into an accident and couldn’t return to work. At the same time, her rent jumped an astounding amount: from $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

Suddenly, she found herself and her three cats sleeping in her car, near the squalid Phoenix tent city known as “The Zone.”

“I refused to leave my car because my belongings were in there,” she told city workers.

In the increasing heat, the blocks-long encampment was awash in crime, addiction, mental illness—a struggle exacerbated by heat and dehydration—and human waste. Kinley described it as “complete chaos.”

Kinley had become one of the 9,600 people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County, with roughly 1,000 camping in The Zone during its peak occupancy. Residents must now scramble to find elsewhere to live, due to a court order clearing the area by November 4.

Fixing a Crisis

For the past two decades, Arizona’s homelessness crisis has spiraled out of control, while the state funds to fix it were slashed.

That is, until recently.

This year, Governor Katie Hobbs signed a bipartisan budget that included an unprecedented $60 million Homeless Shelter and Services (HSS) Fund. The first $20 million was rushed to seven local governments in June, with Phoenix receiving the largest share, $13.3 million.

The drive to create Arizona’s new Homeless Shelter and Services Fund was spearheaded by Arizona Sen. Catherine Miranda (D-Laveen). Miranda, a returning state senator who’d been out of office for five years, said this work was what moved her to come back to the Senate.

“I saw how the homeless quadrupled, and . . . it hit me that I was part of the problem, too,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times.

She realized she’d spent years “driving up Washington or down Jefferson ignoring the issue. And I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to ignore it anymore.”

Where the Money’s Going

This fall, the Arizona Department of Housing (DOH) will decide how to award the rest of the funding. In a recent online session, they polled 130 homeless advocates to come up with top priorities: rental assistance, affordable housing grants, eviction prevention, job training, treatment for mental illnesses and substance abuse, diversion support, emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, and street outreach.

“They’ll get hundreds of millions of dollars in requests,” said Lisa Glow, head of Central Arizona Shelter Services, the state’s largest emergency shelter provider. “We have immediate emergency needs, especially now because of the court order closing The Zone by a strict deadline.”

Still, Glow said, “I feel really hopeful because DOH is listening.”

The first third of the HSS fund was committed in June. Phoenix is using its share to:

  • lease two hotels serving approximately 50 people each, to provide temporary shelter space;
  • create Safe Outdoor Space, a sanctioned camping area with rules and 24-hour security on four acres of state-owned property at 1537 W. Jackson Street.

Safe Outdoor Space will provide each of its 400 users with a 12-foot-by-12-foot space, along with showers, bathrooms, food, shade, and an indoor daytime cooling center. Users will also have access to mental health services and job and financial counseling. It will cost $5.8 million to purchase the land and $3–4 million a year (in non-HSS funds) to manage the area.

“For people who aren’t ready to come off the street, this is a safe space,” said Glow. “It’s a recognition that if there aren’t enough places for people, we can at least bring them the amenities. . . . The fact that there was bipartisan support for this fund was, to me, the big win in this legislative session.”

A Surge in Homelessness 

Arizona’s homelessness crisis is among the worst in the country. Between 2020 and 2023, the state’s homeless population jumped by nearly 25%, while that of the country as a whole rose just 1%.

The results have been lethal, especially in this summer’s brutal heat. Last year, almost 800 of Maricopa County’s 9600 homeless residents—roughly one of every 12—died, mostly from preventable causes.

Two of their bodies were found in dumpsters.

So far this year, homeless people accounted for 42% of Maricopa County’s nearly 200 confirmed heat-related deaths (with 330 more still under investigation), according to a county report.

The surge in homelessness can be attributed to COVID, rising rents, and the lack of affordable housing. During the pandemic, the city’s average rent rose by more than 80%, according to the New York Times. A wave of evictions drove so many people from their homes that they overwhelmed shelters and spilled into the streets.

The Impact on One Man

Joseph, a 64-year-old truck driver sidelined by diabetes and COPD, was one of them. For almost 20 years, he’d been caring for his 88-year-old father in his large house, which had a reverse mortgage.

In March, his father died. In April, Joseph was evicted.

He resisted going to a shelter, choosing instead to live in his sweltering truck, because he was afraid of losing his dog, Max.

“There was no relief. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t keep food.” At night, he’d turn on the air conditioner, cool the truck down, turn it off, and fall asleep—only to wake up drenched in sweat half an hour later and do it all again.

Then he learned St. Vincent de Paul would let him keep his dog. “It’s a unique facility where they let you keep your pet right with you, next to your bed,” he said.

Shelter programs manager Jennifer Morgan explained why. “I realized that was one thing keeping people out of shelters,” she said. “We decided to support those animals as well as people. I love it.”

“Anything that I need, my dog needs, they’ve been more than helpful,” Joseph said. “Just the other day, they helped me sign up for Section 8 housing, a voucher, and confirmation number. And we’ve been looking for an apartment or a place I can live with other people.”

“We want to find Joseph a positive permanent housing situation that works for him and allows him to stay with Max, who is his favorite being on the planet,” Morgan said. “With the new HSS funding, we could launch new programs and expand our existing ability to help more people in need like Joseph.”

On the Path to Stable Housing

After living in her car for a month, shelter services came through for Kinley as well. Outreach workers found her a bed at the Washington Relief Shelter, where she felt something she hadn’t felt since losing her apartment—safe.

Currently, a navigator at the shelter is helping her find a home. She is one of 900 people served at the shelter since it opened a little over a year ago. The first round of HSS funding will expand its shelter capacity by 100 rooms.

And while it’s only temporary shelter, the shelter beds provide something Kinley never found at ‘The Zone”—a good night’s sleep.

“I fell asleep immediately,” she said. “On the street, that’s difficult to do.”

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