NewsLocal NewsInvestigations


Valley grapples with record number of people on the streets

Homeless in Arizona
Posted at 6:03 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 21:28:18-04

Jeff Spellman bought his west Phoenix home more than 30 years ago. It sits on a large, irrigated lot with mature trees and a tidy front porch where he spends his mornings.

“It’s a peaceful place to enjoy your downtime,” he said. “You know, sit on our front porch and read the paper and drink coffee and watch the world go by.”

But the serenity of his yard is just steps away from a major corridor of homelessness in Phoenix along Interstate-17.

“When they get done panhandling, they wander off into my neighborhood. They you know, set up encampments in the alleys and easements,” he told ABC15.

Spellman, a long-time neighborhood advocate said during the coronavirus pandemic the situation has only gotten worse.

“And I don't think we've even seen the tip of the iceberg yet,” he said. "Once protections for evictions expire, I think we're gonna see even more of it.”

Service providers at the Human Services Campus (HSC) in downtown Phoenix share his concern about an influx of homelessness once eviction protections are lifted since there aren’t enough resources to fill the need as it is.

“We turn away almost 500 people a month who are seeking shelter,” said campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender.

The campus is home to 15 additional non-profits that house, feed, heal and find work for people who are experiencing homelessness.

She says by and large there is a simple reason that more people are sleeping on the streets: “The truth is we don't have enough shelter beds in all of Maricopa County for all of the individuals and families experiencing homelessness.“

In February the Phoenix City Council voted to increase the number of beds at Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), the shelter located on the campus.

But it won’t be enough to house everyone who needs it.

There are 3,767 people estimated to be sleeping on streets, in parks, and in their cars in Maricopa County. That is an increase from 3,188 in 2019.

And while there continues to be a concentration of people living on the streets near the Human Services Campus in Downtown Phoenix, more people who are unsheltered are living in other neighborhoods, cities and towns around the Valley.

The 2020 Point In Time count showed increases in nearly every city in Maricopa County.

The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), the agency responsible for homelessness solutions, is working on a plan to address the increase in the unsheltered population but that will take time to implement.

The most obvious way to reduce those numbers is to increase emergency beds but Ash Uss, Executive Director of From the Ground Up which does research about unsheltered homelessness, told ABC15 that the issue is more complex than a lack of shelter space.

“There are a lot of things that intersect with homelessness that people don’t often think about,” she said.

Uss and a team of researchers interviewed 100 unsheltered people to find out what was keeping them on the streets.

Their findings released in the 2019 report Unsheltered Perspectives, which was commissioned by non-profit Andre House. It showed that in addition to a lack of beds barriers included:

  • Shelter curfews
  • Not wanting to give up personal belongings or pets
  • Having criminal background
  • Addiction
  • Mental and physical disabilities
  • Not feeling safe in a shelter setting

“They were worried about being in a room with a lot of other people- some of whom may have mental illness or trauma or things like that,” she said.

They are all things that have to be taken into consideration in any plans to get and keep unsheltered people housed.

Spellman, who serves on the City of Phoenix Homeless Strategies Taskforce, said his neighborhood is doing its part.

“This is a community that's actually willing to be part of that solution,” he said.

His neighborhood is working with the city to open a shelter that he says must have, “all the right wraparound services that people are going to need, that it has certain rules in place that doesn't that don't allow people to queue up outside.”

Potential respite for people in the area both with and without homes.


Why is homelessness on the rise in the Valley?
Navigating the Valley's homeless system