Since 2006, Pima County has had a plan to tackle the issues associated with homelessness in our community. Has any progress been made, and what more needs to be done?
In the midst of the COVID-19 disruption last spring, Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik regularly met online with some 35 nonprofit and other organizations who provide services to the homeless.
They shared crucial information about groups that had available beds with groups that had people who needed them. They discussed who had masks and gloves to distribute to those requiring them. They prioritized who needed donatedfood deliveries.
In another all-hands-on-deck effort, a group that coordinates efforts to address homelessness created a COVID-19 response account on Basecamp, a project and team management software program. It allowed organizations to coordinate efforts in real time.
In this spirit, the city worked with Pima County officials, organizations and businesses to quickly open two hotels for people who are homeless, one for folks who showed symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19 and one for those who were medically at risk.
“That’s a team effort,” says Ramón Valadez, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and District 2 representative. “We’ve learned to work together.”
“What I’ve seen through this pandemic is the community has been able to cut through red tape,” observes Claudia Powell, chair of the board of directors for the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness (TPCH), which created the Basecamp account. “The response has been so impressive.”
This willingness to work together and the quick response on behalf of homeless people demonstrates a success story in the face of the current medical and economic crises. Advocates, service providers and government agencies have worked for years to get to this level of responsiveness.
“Getting the nonprofits to work together is not intuitive,” notes Kozachik, the city’s Ward 6 representative. “To share data and getting them to collaborate has been a struggle.”
It was even harder back in 2006 when the boldly titled “Plan to End Homelessness, Pima County, Arizona” was released by advocates of the homeless. Better communication and service coordination was among the goals of the 52-page, 10-year plan that was required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a condition for receiving federal funds.
Back then there were an estimated 4,000 homeless people on any given night, 60 percent of whom had no shelter, according to the document.
The roadmap was created by the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless, a special committee of the TPCH, itself a coalition of government agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, businesses and individuals working to address homelessness. Its main function is to determine gaps in the service network and apply for, award and monitor about $8 million in annual federal funds sent to Pima County to fight homelessness.
There were 42 goals in broad categories, including preventing homelessness, increasing housing and shelter inventory, providing services that target specific groups of homeless people, providing better information about services and improving serviceprovider coordination.
Although the committee pledged a regular progress report, there was no formal followup. Now, nearly 15 years later, it’s definitely time to take a look.
INFORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
One met goal that got organizations to communicate better was increased use of a countywide database known as the HMIS — Homeless Management Information System.
Organizations that receive HUD funding are required to use it, but it’s also tapped by some nonprofits that get only private funding, and by agencies serving populations affected by homelessness like veterans or people with behavioral health issues.
The system originally was a way for city and county governments to generate required reports for HUD funding by having recipient groups input their information.
Today it’s a dynamic system that allows organizations to add information that is accessible to others. Having one location to track where housing and services are available helps to better use scant resources. “We know we don’t have enough housing, but we need to know what the capacity is,” adds Powell, who also is associate director of the University of Arizona Southwest Institute for Research on Women.
“HMIS really helped us be on the same page,” Daniel Sullivan comments. He is the Pima County community services manager in charge of the county’s homelessness programs. “That’s been a good change in the last couple of years. The partnerships are getting us out of silos.”
When organizations of all sizes started talking with each other, they discovered ways to streamline operations and reduce overlapping services — another goal from the 2006 plan. For instance, Primavera Foundation and Traveler’s Aid Society merged. Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse combined two centers with similar goals. Our Family Services was born from five nonprofits.
Seeking services was an onerous process in 2006, as groups had different criteria for whom they would help. Strides have been made to respond more effectively to the current homeless population of an estimated 1,300, as well as to those who are at risk of becoming homeless.
Today, agencies and organizations use a “no wrong door,” or coordinated entry, approach. It means that instead of turning someone away when an organization does not offer the service that person needs, the organization usually shares information on where to find the appropriate aid.
“That, to me, is one of the biggest successes,” Powell says of the coordinated entry system. “If you go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m in need of housing’ and I say, ‘Well, we can’t serve you here,” for that person that is frustrating and disappointing. You never know what it took to walk in the door.
“For all of these agencies to be coordinated and maintain the database to support the system is a real accomplishment.”
Pima County’s One-Stop workforce development program, for instance, runs the Sullivan Jackson Employment Center. It’s dedicated to helping homeless youth and adults land a job. But it also helps them find the resources to get them ready for work, including housing and living subsidies, substance abuse or behavioral health medical services, and access to government entitlements.
Similar programs are available to veterans and to newly released ex-convicts.
There’s also a growing number of organizations that become one-stop service providers. The one-year-old Center of Opportunity run by the Gospel Rescue Mission offers temporary and long-term housing and a myriad of services on one campus.
ENSURING THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
Of the special populations that the 2006 plan aimed to address — older adults, families, people who are chronically homeless, among others — a big success story are the efforts on behalf of homeless youth, defined as between 18 and 24 years old.
“Our community really decided to learn more about youth homelessness in our county,” remarks Powell. This is often a hidden population as they “couch surf,” she says, moving from home to home without a permanent address of their own.
Currently there are 127 youth beds in shelter, transitional, rehousing and permanent supportive housing settings. TPCH this year secured federal funding for a youth homelessness demonstration project that will add 100 beds.
The pilot project involves seven organizations that together received more than $3 million. They will provide housing, peer outreach and education, and employment services. The beauty of this project was that youth who are or used to be homeless were involved in choosing how HUD funds would be spent, Powell says.
A NEED FOR SPEED
Another pilot program underway in Pima County illustrates the current community preference of putting homeless people in housing first, then encouraging them to apply for the services they need to live a stable lifestyle.
Housing First launched in May 2019 with $1.5 million in Pima County general funds. Tucson provided housing vouchers. It’s a collaboration with the county’s criminal justice reform unit and Old Pueblo Community Services. The aim is to give homeless people in the county justice system a place to stay while getting help with substance abuse or behavioral health problems.
Supervisor Valadez has long worked on programs to help homeless people, starting from his days as a state legislator in the late 1990s. This combination of housing first with services to follow seems most effective. “Part of what I believed then and I still believe is that people are put into a situation without being taught how to succeed.”
By the release of the 2006 plan, most of the Tucson community groups that helped homeless people had made the philosophical shift away from emphasizing services to get a person stable before being housed independently, toward getting people into homes as a first step to stability.
Since then, TPCH has encouraged rapid rehousing, a concept of helping the suddenly homeless who only need a brief hand up. Rapid rehousing provides a safety net for people who lost their homes for temporary reasons. One example is when someone is evicted for getting behind in rent, but still has a job. That person needs a brief housing arrangement until getting back to normal.
There are around 890 beds in countyarea rapid rehousing units. More may be made available through the CARES Act, which provides federal aid in response to COVID-19.
By contrast, nearly 450 beds for transitional housing combine short-term shelter with a required plan to overcome financial and medical challenges that made the person homeless in the first place.
Permanent supportive housing provides long-term subsidized shelter with onsite services. The number of beds has been shrinking since 2017. By the end of the year, the county will have 1,666 beds in such housing.
THE HOUSE RULES
Having a variety of options in a housing first model is a good move, asserts Rev. Tom Hill, who runs WORKship, a project of the First United Methodist Church. The problem is one of access. There simply are not enough beds.
Many landlords won’t take housing vouchers, says Hill, who works directly with people on the street. “For the other people, they just are never going to move high enough on the list to get housing. Their prospects in getting housing are no greater than in 2006.”
Some homeless people he knows can’t or don’t want to navigate the bureaucratic requirements to get stable housing. One couple he knows, “would be an exceptionally good fit for an apartment if there were no restrictions,” he relates.
Instead, what they and others qualify for is housing with attachments. In certain arrangements, especially with organizations that get no government funding, their residents have to agree to be searched, remain bathed, participate in roll call, attend religious services or other required activities. “That’s a very paternal approach to housing, and one that studies have shown is unnecessary,” Hill says.
Gospel Rescue Mission prefers to get a homeless person stable with housing that requires residents to address issues like getting a job or ending an addiction. “Housing first doesn’t always work,” maintains Lisa Chastain, executive director of Gospel Rescue Mission. “You put someone in a house and they’re still going to have those issues.”
YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
Some people have chosen a lifestyle of homelessness. For others who are determined to leave or avoid homelessness, there are still hurdles to changing their situations.
Citing the 2006 plan specifically, Powell says transportation still is inadequate to get people from subsidized housing to services that are congregated around the central and downtown areas of Tucson.
Chastain has seen this play out for years. “For decades, there have been collective groups that were one-stop shops,” she notes, but they were not easy to get to. “The homeless were choosing not to reach out for services to avoid the hassle.”
Powell observes that the cost of housing that outpaces salaries is another issue that needs attention. “The city and county need to form partnerships with landlords and really find out what would incentivize landlords to keep rents more stable,” she says. “What would they need to provide housing for people with our local income?”
Tucson’s Housing First model suffers not only from a lack of housing, but lack of services that help residents create a stable lifestyle. City Councilman Paul Durham, representing Ward 3, reported this deficit after he attended the 2019 Forum on Housing First run by Old Pueblo Community Services.
People who get housing vouchers don’t use them because they can’t access services, Durham explained in his “Paul’s Note” on Jan. 18, 2019. “We have not figured out how to fund the costs related to case management and coordinated service teams that are so critical to the success of the Housing First approach,” he wrote.
He said he heard the frustrations “of our nonprofit providers who often feel they do not receive the funds necessary to adequately support their staff.
AN END GAME?
Something as volatile as homelessness makes it hard for a community to plan for it because of uncontrollable conditions that affect the situation. Even in the best of times, homelessness occurs for a variety of reasons that are tough to address. A few include bankruptcy from medical expenses, domestic violence, former incarceration, drug addiction and mental illness.
There may be a will, but some concede there is no one way to eliminate homelessness. “The issue isn’t that we don’t have a desire,” Valadez says, “the issue is there is no panacea. It’s an incredibly complicated issue because people are homeless for an infinite number of reasons.”
“We are not going to end homelessness,” City Councilman Kozachik reflects. “What we can do is address homelessness and to do it in a compassionate way and treat people with respect.”
Current affairs also overrun good intentions and Herculean efforts. The Great Recession with its high job loss was one. COVID-19 is another. Many people have lost jobs or significant income, and then risk losing housing for not making rent or mortgage payments.
Social distancing drastically cut the number of available shelter and group housing beds. Disruptions slowed job-training programs, counseling sessions and other services.
The community response to help the homeless in the early weeks of COVID-19 was impressive, but Powell wished that level of attention could be sustained.
“If we operated like homelessness was a serious crisis all the time like it is during a pandemic,” Powell sums up wistfully, “we might get things done more quickly and more efficiently.”