Special Report By Susie Steckner
Tempe is making steady progress toward housing chronically homeless people, and successfully keeping them housed. Focusing on this population is vitally important, say city officials, because, in addition to humanitarian concerns, people who are chronically homeless are the most frequent users of public safety and other services.
The city also is successfully connecting the broader homeless population with social and other related services.
According to figures provided by Nikki Ripley, Tempe’s communication and media relations manager, the city has allocated an additional $1.03 million to the last fiscal year’s $1.25 million to assist the homeless, a 56 percent increase over last year. The added funds include a $75,000 expansion of the Tempe Works program and adding city employees to work directly with people who are homeless as well as expanding park maintenance to enhance city parks.
The City Council OK’d the allocations as part of its June 6 approval of the 2019-20 fiscal year budget. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
Significant investments in recent years have been crucial to the city’s ability to serve people in need, according to Ripley, who noted that Mayor Mark Mitchell has expressed pride in the city’s progress and belief that investments are slowly showing progress.
“Tempe is a compassionate community. Our residents have a right to clean, safe neighborhoods and parks – at the same time, they care about helping homeless people and families,” Mitchell said.
The new investments approved by the City Council for homeless-related efforts will support:
- An additional police officer to boost patrols in city parks
- A CARE 7 social service coordinator to enhance crisis response
- Two additional homeless outreach specialists to extend coverage and focus deployment
- Funding for the City Attorney’s office to assist in Tempe Mental Health Court, which serves people experiencing homelessness
- Funding to expand private security patrols in city parks, increasing the number of parks and coverage hours with enhanced security
- Funding for park and vegetation cleanups to address homeless encampments
Complex, national issue
A progress report to the City Council at a May work study session laid out a wide-range of work being done to meet Tempe’s goal of ending homelessness, highlighting efforts by multiple city departments and regional partnerships.
Tempe, like other cities across the nation, according to studies, is seeing an increase in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness. A lack of affordable housing, increasing rental costs and high eviction rates make it more difficult for people to remain housed.
Tempe’s vision of providing additional resources is aimed at making homelessness a rare, brief and one-time experience in the community, said Ripley. That means that homelessness does not happen often; that people who become homeless are connected to shelter and housing as soon as possible; and that those who are housed do not return to homelessness.
In January, Tempe staff and volunteers counted 373 people experiencing homelessness, up from 276 the previous year, during the county-wide annual Point-in-Time Homeless Street Count.
The one-day effort is designed to provide a snapshot of the homeless population in the region. Maricopa County as a whole showed 6,614 people experiencing homelessness, an increase of 316 from 2018. That overall number has been climbing for six consecutive years. In Tempe, statistics show a year-over-year increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, starting in 2016. The city attributes those increases to improvements in how the street count is conducted as well as the growth of the region.
Dedicating more resources has been key to Tempe’s work serving people in need, according to officials. During fiscal 2018-19, the city invested nearly $1.25 million in homeless-related programs and services. That number has grown each fiscal year since 2015-2016, when the city allocated approximately $266,000.
These totals, however, do not include grant dollars or programs such as Housing Choice vouchers that are funded through other government sources. In addition to those dedicated resources, city departments such as Tempe Police and Tempe Fire Medical Rescue provide services through their normal operations to assist with homelessness.
While Tempe has steadily been advancing the goal to end homelessness, city staff emphasized that the pace of progress can feel slow. Tempe continues to build on a foundation laid roughly 20 years ago with the first formal efforts to address homelessness, staff members say.
“The city of Tempe has a long history of conscientious program development to address homelessness,” said Nichole Stevens, the city’s homeless solutions supervisor. “We rely on an infrastructure that includes multiple city departments, as well as local, state and federal governments, nonprofits, service providers and the faith community.”
“Today, Tempe is considered an innovator in creating successful strategies for assisting people out of homelessness,” she said.
The upcoming additional investments are designed to enhance and expand the work being done throughout the city and region.
HOPE team. The city’s homeless outreach team—HOPE—plays a vital role in engaging people and connecting them with housing and social services. HOPE is said to use best national practices, and team members’ expertise is sought out by regional partners. Among the team’s successes:
- Last fiscal year, the HOPE team alone served more than half—or 624—of the 1,117 unduplicated homeless individuals in the region reporting Tempe as their last known address through navigation and case management.
- Of those 624, the team engaged 201 chronically homeless people and housed 55 of them.
- Overall, the HOPE team found permanent housing for 103 people in the broader homeless population.
- Team members have been able to house a person in an average of 35 days—from voucher issuance to leasing an apartment—and 95 percent of those clients remained housed. Regional providers average 41 days from voucher issuance to leasing an apartment and 85 percent of those clients remained housed.
- Through the efforts of the HOPE team and regional partners, nearly 240 Tempeans experiencing homelessness were housed last fiscal year.
Multi-department approach. Successful outcomes like these rely on the work of many city departments, including Human Services, Tempe Police, Tempe Fire Medical Rescue, Tempe Municipal Court, Municipal Utilities, the City Attorney’s Office and Community Services, officials say.
For instance, the Police Department and the park maintenance team within Community Services work together to address encampments in Tempe parks by engaging people in need and ensuring that parks are safe and welcoming for all users. CARE 7’s crisis response team and Tempe Fire Medical Rescue partner to reduce the chronic use of public safety systems by high-cost and high-need users, many of whom are homeless.
Housing Services has expanded housing options with more than 130 specialty vouchers for vulnerable populations such as people with serious mental illnesses and victims of domestic violence.
The housing team also offers three emergency shelter units.
The HOPE and CARE 7 teams identify individuals and families experiencing homelessness who are eligible for this housing.
Regional partnerships. A key part of Tempe’s approach is establishing partnerships with external stakeholder groups such as the East Valley Access to Housing Group and Tempe Homeless Coalition. In 2017, Tempe City Manager Andrew Ching convened the East Valley City Managers’ Work Group to tackle issues related to homelessness as a region.
Tempe has gained a positive reputation in the Valley for its work.
“The city of Tempe continues to innovate and experience successes with a multi-pronged approach to its goal of ending homelessness, from daily street outreach to innovative work programs to leadership at the regional level,” said Bruce Liggett, director of the Maricopa County Human Services Department.
“This comprehensive approach is crucial to addressing the challenging and complex issue of homelessness.”
For more information about Tempe’s efforts to end homelessness: tempe.gov/EndingHomelessness