The issue of homelessness has been in the news in recent weeks, after President Trump threatened to use the federal government to round up homeless people in California and move them into new government-backed facilities.
While the President’s potentially illegal idea for California garnered the headlines, the issue is reaching critical mass in Maricopa County, too.
The majority of Arizona’s homeless — about two-thirds — live in Maricopa County, according to federal data, and the county’s homelessness epidemic shows no signs of abating.
The worst affordable housing crisis of our time
While exact numbers are hard to come by, the Maricopa Association of Governments conducts an annual point-in-time count, gathering data about how many people are experiencing homelessness on any given night.
The association released its 2019 findings in May, which found that there were 6,614 people experiencing homelessness in the county on the night of Jan. 21 — 316 more than during the 2018 count.
Point-in-time counts notoriously undercount the homeless, however, given they stick to a one-day timeframe and people frequently go in and out of homelessness.
The actual number is likely much larger; the Arizona Department of Economic Security found that there were 20,350 homeless people in Maricopa County in 2018, according to the department’s Homelessness in Arizona Annual Report.
While this number is actually slightly down from 2017, advocates working with the homeless say the issue is worse than ever and point to the state’s lack of affordable housing as the root cause of the issue.
Lisa Glow, the CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), told ABC 15 in July that the state is facing the worst affordable housing crisis of our time.
The numbers back Glow up.
A March 2019 report from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a think tank and advocacy group, found that for people with extremely low incomes, Arizona has the third most-severe shortage of rental housing in the country, with a deficit of more than 153,000 homes.
The Phoenix metropolitan area is especially struggling with the issue, as it only has 20% of the available affordable housing stock it needs, Glow said, which is among the worst rates in the nation.
This shortage has caused rental costs in Phoenix to rise faster than anywhere else in the nation. As of March 2019, the average monthly cost to rent an apartment in the Phoenix metro area had surged by 8.1% over the previous twelve months, adding $103 to the average renter’s monthly bill, according to national apartment research firm RealPage.
In contrast, average U.S. rent only climbed by 3.4%, or $60 per month.
Rising rental costs in the region have led to a surge in evictions, with Maricopa County’s Justices of the Peace signing about 43,800 eviction judgments in 2018, a 3% increase over 2017, according to the Arizona Republic.
These evictions have forced low-income renters out of their apartments and into homelessness. “As rents rise, homelessness rises, because people get evicted,” Glow told the Phoenix New Times.
A growing number of seniors are becoming homeless
Among these low-income renters is Grace, a 74-year-old Phoenix woman whose story was recently spotlighted by the Phoenix New Times.
Grace, who requested that the Phoenix New Times use a pseudonym, was forced onto the streets after her senior apartment complex raised her rent by $50, from $600 to $650 per month.
Grace relies on her Social Security check of slightly more than $1,000 per month and couldn’t make the new price work due to other expenses, such as car insurance, phone bills and groceries.
She searched for a new apartment, but didn’t find one that she could afford. She then sold her car, lived in a motel for three weeks, and spent three nights on the street before finding CASS, where she now sleeps on a cot.
Grace isn’t alone. In fact, she’s part of a growing number of Arizona seniors who are becoming homeless. In 2016, the last year that the state compiled detailed demographic data, 6% of homeless people in Maricopa County were 62 or older, up from 4% in 2014.
Glow described homelessness among seniors as an emerging crisis in the region. “Our biggest concern is the growing number of seniors becoming homeless,” she told the Phoenix New Times.
Beds are in short supply
Compounding the issue even further is that shelter beds are in short supply in Maricopa County, as is funding for the homeless.
The Phoenix New Times reported that the latest county-wide shelter and housing inventory from the Maricopa Association of Governments shows that the county has 12,297 beds, but the vast majority of those beds are filled.
In 2018, CASS collected data on how many people it had to turn away for lack of beds. In one month alone, the organization found that it denied beds to 500 people.
The county’s 1,900 permanent housing facilities, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are also filled and rarely become vacant.
What’s being done
While some states have specific funds dedicated to affordable housing, Arizona is not one of them. To make matters worse, the state legislature also passed a law in 2015 that effectively bans cities and towns from forcing developers to build affordable housing units.
But after years of inaction, the legislature finally took some small steps in 2019, allocating $15 million to the state’s housing fund trust to help low-income families.
The money will go towards building rental housing for formerly homeless people, transitional housing for those with mental health issues, a new homeless shelter for veterans, and a behavioral health residential facility for people who need mental health treatment.
The funding is the biggest increase to the state’s housing fund since the Great Recession.
Beyond that, the Arizona Department of Housing also rolled out a pilot eviction-prevention program in April, which is expected to help roughly 1,200 families across the state, including about 400 in Maricopa County.
Arizona homeowners can also help those who are homeless or struggling to afford rent, thanks to a new voluntary program which will see the Arizona Housing Fund collect voluntary $25 donations from homebuyers. The fund has also drawn support from the Arizona Community Foundation, homebuilders, real-estate agents and government and business leaders.
Still, advocates like Glow insist more needs to be done to combat the issue and prevent women like Grace from becoming homeless. “The system needs an overhaul,” Glow told the Phoenix New Times.
That overhaul, if it ever comes, is unlikely to occur quickly, though, and the impact of the housing shortage continues to be felt.
In August, Rentcafe.com found that rental prices in Phoenix once again increased 8% year-over-year, with no signs of slowing down.