By Joyce Coronel
You’ve seen them standing at the freeway exits or on street corners, holding makeshift signs with scrawled pleas for assistance.
“Any amount will help. God bless,” one such sign read.
At times, South Tempe and West Chandler residents have been approached in the parking lots of local retail businesses. “Excuse me, miss. Do you have spare change so I can take the bus?”
Just how many homeless people are there in our community?
Theresa James, homeless coordinator for the city of Tempe, has been working to help those who have no place to call home since 2002.
“There’s no way to accurately count everyone who is homeless. It’s impossible,” James told Wrangler News, but the city, along with Chandler and the other communities in Maricopa County, endeavors to do so each year.
The effort is called the Point-in-Time Homeless street count and shelter count and it takes place each January. This year, it will happen on Jan. 26, when city officials and volunteers hit the streets at 6 a.m. and begin making a tally. They work until noon, visiting all the places the homeless are known to frequent.
Vice mayor of Chandler Kevin Hartke serves alongside James on the Continuum of Care and Homelessness for the Maricopa Association of Governments Board. The point-in-time homeless count yields valuable information, according to both Hartke and James.
“It’s a figure that is used by HUD in looking at what’s the profile of homelessness across the Valley here, and in cities and it’s used as a funding mechanism too,” Hartke said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is one of the major funding sources for homeless services throughout the country and mandates that an accurate count be made every other year. In Maricopa County, the tally is made yearly.
“That information then that is included in a yearly application that goes to HUD,” James said. “About 60 different programs and agencies are funded for homeless services throughout Maricopa County.”
Hartke said been part of the effort in the past and plans to do so again this year. So exactly who are the homeless in Chandler?
“The biggest profile person would probably be an adult male that’s chronically homeless on the streets,” Hartke said. “Chronically homeless means they’re not staying in a habitable place, they’re not on a neighbor’s couch, they’re not in a shelter. Perhaps they’re in a car or a tent or just sleeping behind a bush.”
The point-in-time count is a way for Chandler to keep a finger on the pulse of where homeless individuals are staying in the city and connect them with resources. Some don’t want to talk, but others do. Those involved in the count ask basic questions such as the person’s age and if they are a veteran of the armed forces. It’s a matter of trying to find people who don’t necessarily want to be found.
“They’re kind of spread out, mostly on the main arterials, either Chandler Boulevard, Arizona Avenue, or downtown Chandler where there’s resources, but we do have some that have been on camps on the railroads,” Hartke said. “We have had individuals, particularly in West Chandler — there are some open areas there, there are some intersections where people hang out — so it somewhat depends on what people’s transportation capacity is.”
James emphasized that homelessness is closer than many people realize.
“Hopefully it’s not a huge surprise to people anymore, but any one of us could become homeless any time. Many, many people in this country are one paycheck away from homelessness,” James said, adding that she’s met people from all walks of life, “people with master’s degrees and an R.N.” who were homeless.
Last year Tempe counted 86 homeless people. That’s down from a high of 180 at one point. In Chandler, the numbers for 2015 were 31 unsheltered individuals and 19 sheltered.
According to data collected during the 2015 count for all of Maricopa County, 5,631 people had experienced homelessness. Of those, 1,289 reported sleeping on the streets. Of the total number of homeless, 380 were children.