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Durham: Emergency shelter program a success, despite Rep. Gress’ claims


Last Wednesday night (Sept. 13), Representative Matt Gress held a hearing at the Civic Center Library concerning Scottsdale’s emergency shelter program. At the City Council’s June 27 meeting, the Council voted 6-1 to accept a grant of $940,000 from the State of Arizona, which allows Scottsdale to continue a program of providing emergency bridge housing to those in need. As a member of the council, I was proud to vote for this program. 

Under this program, Scottsdale provides 10 rooms at a local hotel. Seven of the 10 rooms are provided for seniors and mothers with children who have been displaced from their homes in Scottsdale. The demand in Scottsdale is so great that the program has been limited to Scottsdale citizens. Contrary to Representative Gress’s claims, no one from Phoenix’s “Zone” or any foreign nationals have been allowed in the program. The citizens in this program are not left “on their own,” the city provides support from caseworkers who monitor their progress.  As discussed below, this program has been remarkably successful. 

While the meeting was supposedly organized to discover facts, Representative Gress seemed uninterested in the operation of Scottsdale’s program. Instead, he brought in two witnesses from San Francisco, with no knowledge of Scottsdale, who repeated horror stories about San Francisco’s well-known problems. If he were interested in Scottsdale, it would have made more sense to question some of the dozens of citizens who have benefitted from Scottsdale’s program. Or he could have questioned our police, who were standing by to testify to the security and safety of the program. But I guess that wouldn’t have drawn headlines or TV cameras, which seemed to be the object of the meeting.

At the outset of the meeting, Representative Gress recognized that Scottsdale has been running hotel programs for over a year. He’s right; we are the West’s most Western town, and this is not our first rodeo. We have been successfully running similar programs since 2020 with great success and no safety problems.

Representative Gress emphasized that he is interested in Scottsdale’s security and safety. Your council members are, too. We live here; these issues are foremost in our minds. In this regard, our record on the hotel programs has been outstanding. There have been no calls for police services for violence, disorderly contact, drug or alcohol abuse, sex trafficking or any other public nuisances to any of our hotel programs. That’s zero as in zip, nada, none, naught. It doesn’t get much safer than that. The only call for police service has been for a participant who didn’t return their rental car on time, which is hardly the type of safety or security problem with which Representative Gress is concerned. Representative Gress ignored this fact and continued to insist that the hotel programs constitute a safety and crime problem.

Representative Gress repeatedly tried to claim that Scottsdale is going down the same path as San Francisco. The hearing included two witnesses who discussed the horrid conditions in San Francisco, but had no knowledge of Scottsdale’s hotel program. Any comparison of Scottsdale to San Francisco is ridiculous, and frankly, an insult to Scottsdale. The stark differences between Scottsdale’s program and San Francisco’s instead highlight why Scottsdale is a success and San Franciso is a failure. 

There are at least two enormous differences between Scottsdale’s program and San Francisco’s. First, Scottsdale’s hotel program has 10 rooms in one hotel. San Francisco has thousands of rooms scattered over 80 hotels, which is a recipe for disaster. As one would expect in such a massive program, San Francisco’s program is extremely inefficient and results in filthy rooms that no one would want to occupy.  San Francisco has janitorial, maintenance and cleanliness problems in such an enormous program. One of the San Francisco witnesses testified that 490 tenants have died of drug problems in San Francisco’s hotel rooms. Needless to say, this hasn’t happened in Scottsdale—particularly since we don’t house people with substance abuse disorders.

By way of contrast, it is relatively easy to monitor 10 rooms and make sure that the rooms are kept up.  During public comment, the manager of the hotel which houses Scottsdale’s program confirmed that the Scottsdale units are clean, the tenants are orderly, and no problems have been presented.  Representative Gress ignored the manager’s comments. 

Second, Representative Gress repeatedly highlighted the need for services to help people in these programs. But he again ignored the fact that Scottsdale is already providing these services. Despite what Representative Gress repeatedly claimed, Scottsdale doesn’t operate on San Francisco’s “Housing First” model. We provide services to our tenants from day one to help them move on from homelessness. And since we don’t include persons with substance abuse disorders in the program, we have no need for recovery programs. 

Once again, by way of contrast, San Francisco can’t possibly provide services to thousands of people scattered across 80 hotels. That’s why Scottsdale operates successfully and San Francisco doesn’t.  Scottsdale’s services and regular monitoring are the key to success.   

As a result of these differences, by any measure, Scottsdale’s program has been extremely successful. The vast majority of the residents in Scottsdale’s program have moved on to permanent housing within 30 to 90 days. That’s a huge win for Scottsdale and for the program participants. Representative Gress should be running back to the Capitol to exclaim that Scottsdale has found the way to address, at least partially, the homeless problem.

During the comment period, several citizens were concerned about how a paying hotel guest would feel about having a room next to a tenant of Scottsdale’s program. The honest answer is it would be next to impossible for the paying guest to know. Once again, the manager of the hotel explained that the tenants of the program have not created any problems. They keep their rooms clean and are model tenants. I have met many of the citizens in this program. They include veterans who have lost a job due to illness, elderly on fixed incomes who have been pushed out by rising rents, and other good citizens who have hit a temporary rough patch. I am appalled by representative Gress’s demonization of fellow Scottsdale citizens. 

The only person at the hearing with actual knowledge of Scottsdale’s program, aside from Mayor Ortega, was the manager of the hotel where the program operates. As reported in the Independent, the manager praised Scottsdale’s program, saying the participants “have been nothing but nice and extremely appreciative for the opportunity to get back on their feet. We have had zero problems during the entire last year. None of them doing drugs has been an issue at all,” and the manager added that some of the participants have reached out about getting jobs and permanent places to live after they left the program. Of course, Representative Gress ignored the manager’s comments since they didn’t fit his narrative. 

If Representative Gress is really concerned about crime and safety in Scottsdale, he should be leading the charge to rein in short-term rentals (STRSs) in Scottsdale. While our hotel programs have not resulted in any serious police calls, STRs have resulted in numerous police calls and neighborhood disturbances and have forced Scottsdale to devote additional resources (your tax dollars) to corral these problems. Just last month (August) STRs created 57 police calls for service to STRs. Fifty-seven calls! Once again, during this time the hotel program created zero serious service calls. Judge for yourself which is the greater “problem” Representative Gress should be addressing.

I challenged Rep. Gress to come back and hold a hearing on STRs to deal with Scottsdale’s actual problem, but he was noncommittal. He claimed that STRs have nothing to do with homelessness, but it doesn’t take a degree in economics to understand that removing 4,000-5,000 units from Scottsdale’s housing stock reduces supply, increases demand and raises prices. That increase in prices directly leads to homelessness, as seniors and other citizens who have hit a rough patch are priced out of the market. I agree with Gress that reining in STRs won’t necessarily solve homelessness issues, but it is a step in the right direction. Continuing with STRs at full speed certainly isn’t going to help anyone.

If Representative Gress is truly worried about crime and safety in Scottsdale, I call on him to hold a hearing on STRs. Drop the San Francisco “witnesses” who have no idea what is happening in Scottsdale. Call our police chief to talk about crime in STRs and the burden placed on our police. Call citizens whose neighborhoods are being destroyed and whose peace and quiet is being disturbed. He’ll get an earful about real problems, not imaginary one