While millions of Americans continue to shelter in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, those living without shelter face special challenges.
City and county officials are meeting homeless people on the streets to assess their needs, while partnering with nonprofit groups who provide testing and care to protect those living outdoors, as well as the communities around which they reside.
The Maricopa Association of Governments, which coordinates the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point in Time count of homeless individuals locally, partners with municipalities across the Valley on one day early each year.
Police, city officials and volunteers get out into the communities, on the streets and even down into the riverbeds, to meet one-on-one and speak with those living outdoors and conduct a brief survey.
This year’s PIT effort, conducted throughout the county on Jan. 27, revealed a continuing trend of increasing homelessness — especially unsheltered homelessness.
Among those counted as “sheltered homeless” are people staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe haven programs. This year’s count found 3,652 such individuals, a number which peaked at 4,342 in 2015 but has since remained steady around the 3,500 mark.
During the same timespan, however, the number of unsheltered homeless people has nearly tripled, from 1,289 in 2015 up to 3,767 this year — a trend which has seen what was once primarily a “downtown problem” extend to the far outskirts of the Valley, from Buckeye and Surprise to Scottsdale and Chandler.
“The numbers while not unexpected are nevertheless alarming. The continued dramatic increase in people experiencing unsheltered homelessness is particularly troubling given the coming summer months,” stated Anne Scott, a human services planner for MAG. “Overall increases mean more individuals and families are without a home — poignant at a time when we are urged to stay home.”
Apart from coordinating the annual HUD count, MAG also runs the Maricopa Regional Continuum of Care, with the aim of understanding and solving the homeless crisis.
Learn more about these efforts at azmag.gov.
Beyond their usual efforts, MAG has partnered this year with cities and nonprofits to screen for COVID-19 and address the needs of the unsheltered during the outbreak, according to Ms. Scott.
“MAGs role has been in communicating with the providers about federal guidance and helping to coordinate requests for materials, staff, etc. from the homeless services providers to the cities that received funding,” Ms. Scott stated. “The Maricopa Regional Continuum of Care is working with Maricopa County on the pandemic response and hope that increased resources will help to reduce these numbers.”
The Maricopa County Human Services Department is forefront in coordinating efforts with MAG, the cities and nonprofit agencies serving those without shelter, according to an April 28 press release.
“The Maricopa County Human Services Department works with federal, state, municipal, and non-profit partners, along with the Maricopa County Association of Governments, to implement regional solutions to homelessness, partnerships that are even more critical during this pandemic,” the release stated.
Officials are working to find indoor facilities for some homeless people while creating safer outdoor spaces and arranging medical assessments and care with the help of charity groups.
“We are fortunate to have strong partners who share our commitment to assisting the most vulnerable among us during this unprecedented time,” said Bruce Liggett, Director of Maricopa County Human Services Department. “None of us is solely responsible, and none of us can do this alone. What’s important is that we each do what we can.”
So far, MCHSD has arranged for 200 beds county-wide for at-risk homeless people, while a dozen individuals have been moved to leased facilities in the East Valley.
With the help of volunteers, some homeless people may move to county-owned lots, where they are provided with cold water, hand-washing stations, toilets and security, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent breaking up and dispersing homeless encampments, according to the release.
One nonprofit group working to help those without shelter in Phoenix is Circle the City, which has five facilities in the downtown area. Mr. Liggett praised their recent efforts.
“Circle the City’s holistic approach to providing medical services to those experiencing homelessness fits well with our goal to reduce risk among the County’s most vulnerable,” he said. “Circle the City has provided medical respite in Maricopa County for decades. It is no surprise to see them stepping up their efforts in these unprecedented times.”
Linda Ross, CEO at Circle the City, explained her agency’s recent efforts during a video press conference published April 28.
“What we’re doing to respond to COVID-19 is we’ve taken some of our space … and recognized that with the homeless it’s really difficult to isolate them,” Ms. Ross said. “If there is an issue you can’t just send them home because they don’t have a home. So, what we had to do was basically create that environment for them.”
She said her company has partnered with county and city of Phoenix officials to sequester homeless people suspected of having the virus. They administer tests and provide essential services while awaiting the test results.
Using space at Circle the City’s facilities, officials and volunteers have made room for up to 40 individuals at a time with all the necessary amenities, she said.
“We have eight tents with five cots each, so we have a total of 40 cots available out in our parking lot behind our respite center and our clinic with portable hand-washing stations, portable toilets, portable showers, cots, AC — because it’s getting pretty hot out there — and pretty much anything that you need,” Ms. Ross said. “Folks wait out there while we’re waiting for their test results.”
For those who have tested positive for COVID-19, Circle the City has established another area to separate and care for them, she said.
“We have had some patients that are positive that have come to us and we need to have another place for them to isolate,” Ms. Ross said. “In our respite center that’s on the campus, we’ve taking a 10-bed dorm and we have isolated that for positive patients. So, that is a place that they will stay until they are clear and ready to go back out and be discharged.”
Circle the City has increased its testing of homeless people with additional test kits provided by the county. Having started on March 17, the agency has so far administered 89 tests with just one positive case.
The number of individuals in the investigation area has reached 25 so far, all of whom have tested negative and been cleared for release, while four patients are currently staying in the isolation dorm, according to Ms. Ross.
Circle the City has also tested 17 of its staff members for the virus with no positives, she added.
The agency, which only serves the homeless community, seeks a broad range of skilled volunteers — including those providing direct care, as well as volunteers to lead classes and field trips, prepare and serve food, teach classes, provided administrative help, coordinate events and supply drives, and deliver pet, music and art therapy programs.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit circlethecity.org/volunteer.