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Why is homelessness on the rise in the Valley?

Posted at 7:01 PM, Jun 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 18:09:01-04

PHOENIX — In early 2021, Tyson Pete was spending the last of his money at a Phoenix motel with his four children.

“I was on my last leg," Pete said.

He had recently returned to Arizona from the East Coast after a divorce. He and his children were living with a friend until he found out they were stealing from him, he said. Days later, Pete had run out of time.

“Everything that I could think of, I did it. (Donating) plasma, everything. But I couldn't. I couldn't anymore,” he said.

Nearly 7,500 people were found to be experiencing homelessness in the most recent Point in Time Count. That number represents a faster rate of increase than anywhere else in the nation, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

Specific reasons for homelessness are as unique as the people experiencing it. Data from Maricopa Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) provides some insight.

For people accessing shelter from May 2020 through April 2021, primary reasons for homelessness included:

  • Family Dispute/Overcrowding 2,258 (16%)
  • Economic Reasons 2,239 (16%)
  • Eviction 1,397 (10%)
  • Loss of Employment 1,121 (8%)
  • New to Area 928 (7%)
  • Violence/Abuse 895 (6%)
  • Substance Use 671 (5%)
  • Mental Health 661 (5%)

On his final day in the motel, Pete started calling charities for help and was referred to A New Leaf, which operates emergency shelters for families, single men, and veterans.

“Within an hour I had a call back,” he said.

Pete’s family is one of the lucky ones who were able to get into shelter and avoid spending any time on the streets, but in 2020, that is where a record number of people ended up.

Unsheltered homelessness reached 3,767 in 2020. That is an increase of 579 over 2019. And it is the first time the number of unsheltered people has outnumbered those in a shelter.

There are several reasons for that, but two of the biggest are a lack of housing and stagnant wages, according to Human Services Campus (HSC) executive director Amy Schwabenlender. The campus is the entry point for homelessness services for single adults.

“So while we're all doing great work, we have more people moving here. Without an increase in wages, to afford housing,” she said. “We don't have housing being created at a rate that matches the number of new people moving here. And then you throw COVID in the last year on top of everything.”

She said providers are preparing for an influx of even more people into the system once the CDC eviction moratorium is lifted.

“We don't have enough housing for everyone. So we have to keep having this conversation about more housing.”

With the help of A New Leaf, Pete and his children were able to stabilize. He is back to work as a chef and secured his own housing after about four months in a shelter.

“I've worked my tail off these last couple of months to build everything that I have,” he said.

And when he’s not working in the kitchen, he is working on his own non-profit to help people who are in the same situation he was in not long ago.

“If I can make a difference, somewhere, anywhere, that’s what’s important to me,” he said.