Outreach Outnumbered: What advocates are up against helping booming unsheltered population in Arizona

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This is a 3-part report on how outreach teams in the Phoenix area are working to earn the trust of the unsheltered to get them the help they need, but are also working to break down the barriers to getting that help. You can find all three parts as you scroll down.

Part 1: Outreach teams stay persistent in offering help to booming unsheltered population across Maricopa County

The Phoenix metro area homelessness crisis was extensively covered this year as it's gotten worse for thousands of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, we're looking into what small outreach teams are facing when they offer services to the unsheltered.

FOX 10 Investigator Justin Lum hit the streets to find out.

Here's the thing: Service providers will most likely never see such massive funding again, like the American Rescue Plan and CARES Act have given to counties and cities.

Spending takes time, and outreach teams are just trying to keep up with the influx of unsheltered people across Maricopa County, the state's most populous county.

Meeting them where they're at

"Being out here, you know what to expect," says Anne Marie Johnston, Senior Director of Housing and Community Integration for Community Bridges, Inc. 

She and Ollie Nyman know what it feels like.

The two took a FOX 10 crew on the road with them to Northern Horizon Park in Glendale where people are living unsheltered.

They work for Community Bridges, Inc. (CBI), a nonprofit that transitions people out of homelessness and ultimately into housing.

"We were in this position before. Both of us were in the same position as everyone else out here, so knowing that we changed our lives, that’s what we want for everyone else," Johnston said.

There are dozens of navigators like her at CBI, around less than a hundred total doing homeless outreach across the Valley.

"We come out over and over again to build rapport, build that trust. There are several people we met today that we’ll come back again tomorrow or the next day to try and re-engage with them, and it’s basically on their terms," Johnston explained.

Recently, the county started funding the Hand-in-Hand Street Outreach Program, collaborating with CBI to target communities and unincorporated areas.  

Currently, there are about six outreach workers to tackle hot spots where people may not want to be found.

Support services include food and benefits, housing, mental and physical health services, employment and substance abuse recovery.

The effort on the ground is unwavering.

"It gets very discouraging sometimes. Keep coming out and told that there are no resources available, or you keep coming out and people either decline or refuse services for whatever reason. It gets to be discouraging. The number of individuals that are experiencing homelessness out here starts to weigh on our outreach workers sometimes," said Nyman, the associate director of housing and community integration at CBI.

Ollie Nyman and Anne Marie Johnston

Unsheltered living, by the numbers

According to the 2022 point-in-time count conducted in January of this year, Maricopa County’s unsheltered population sat at 5,029 people.

Since the pandemic began, the unsheltered count went up by 34%. That's nearly four times the sheltered count’s increase of 9%, and 12% more than the overall homelessness count’s increase, totaling 22%.

To put it into perspective, 56% of the 9,000 people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County are living on the streets.

‘Cops like to run us off …’

Jason Schutt is currently unsheltered.

He describes it as "cold, noisy and there’s always something going on."

Schutt was evicted in January for not being able to afford rent due to rent hikes, and he says that wasn’t his first eviction.

"At night when it’s done right, you can’t tell, you can’t see it from the street, you can’t see it from anywhere," he said of his small tent hidden away in the brush near the railroad.

It's where he and his dog, Puppy, try to get some sleep.

"Cops like to run us off every chance they get," he said.

Schutt is looking for a shelter with fewer restrictions so he can keep his dog with him. He donates plasma to make money, but he wants affordable housing and a job.

"How am I supposed to get a respectable job if I can’t even take a shower?" Schutt remarked.

Schutt says drug use is constant at the park, adding, "Most people that I know that are on the streets is because of their drug addiction and the number one thing here is fentanyl."

The deadly drug is what's known as the "blues" on the street.

"Fentanyl pills are like $5 – $3 or $5 for a pill," Johnston said.

Drug use is a major challenge for outreach when someone is under the influence. But so is when someone doesn’t want to be separated from their spouse, pet or personal belongings.

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Jason Schutt

Time ticks on spending

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on how American Rescue Plan funding is allocated and spent.

Out of $871 million in American Rescue Plan funding granted, Maricopa County allocated $761 million to several issues thus far.

15% of the funding is focused on homelessness, which is about $114 million. The county has until Dec. 31, 2024 to allocate all the funding received, and must spend it by 2026.

These are costly decisions to try and solve what seems to be a never-ending crisis.

Change of heart

"There are decisions I could have made … it’s on me. I don’t point the finger at the government," Schutt said.

He's decided to make a change as his kids are nearly grown up, and he’s missed out on a lot.

Schutt says he’ll accept services from CBI to take a step in the right direction. His dog will also be coming along.

When asked if he's had enough time to think about his choice, his response was "More than I need. More than enough. Done thinking about it. I live it every day."

What's next?

The county says there are 352 shelter beds becoming available soon, costing $21 million. There are four hotels leased and used for bridge shelters as well.

Meanwhile, the Hand-In-Hand program costs about $425,000, paid through the county’s general fund.

Part 2: Phoenix Rescue Mission’s street outreach tackles challenge of unhoused population in West Valley

Outreach workers continue to battle the homelessness crisis beyond Phoenix and into the West Valley as its unsheltered population is growing.

In part 1, we showed you what one non-profit organization and Maricopa County are doing to engage unsheltered people living far away from resources. 

For the Phoenix Rescue Mission, outreach has shifted focus on much of the West Valley. County data reveals the sheltered population in that area has decreased while the unsheltered population has gone up by 70% across the West Valley since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

‘Stay off the blues’

In just two months, the Super Bowl will be played less than five miles away from Bonsall Park in Glendale.

Matt with the Phoenix Rescue Mission is a veteran outreach worker offering services to those who are unsheltered. A young man he spoke with recently got out of jail and is trying to quit using fentanyl.

"Stay off the blues. Stay sober. Stay clean. You got a life ahead of you. Your kids need you too," Matt said to the young man. Fentanyl is often referred to as "the blues."

Outreach starts with a bag of toiletries and water, forming a long path to trust, hopefully.

Unsheltered population outpacing the number of outreach teams

From 2020-2022, Glendale saw a 138% increase in unsheltered people. According to the point-in-time homeless count for Maricopa County, the population grew from 170 to 406.

Outreach teams are trying to keep up with the growth.

"This is definitely not work that is easy work. Often times we think, ‘well just house them, take them off the street, and put them into housing.’ 'Why don’t people want to go into shelter?’ But the thing is that a lot of the work that is done by our case managers really focuses on one main thing and that’s building trusting relationships," explained Jussane Goodman, director of community engagement for the Phoenix Rescue Mission.

Six years ago, she started on the outreach team. Since then, the unsheltered population in Maricopa County has ballooned by 2,970 people.

Phoenix Rescue is contracted with eight different cities across the Valley: Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale, Peoria, Avondale, Goodyear, El Mirage and Surprise.

The thing is, there are only about 26 workers doing the outreach.

"The funding really is the difference between having one or two case managers or having a team of case managers serving the county," Goodman said.

There are complexities within the crisis, she says. Services are needed before and after outreach.

"Is there sufficient shelter options for special populations like seniors or youth? Or maybe a request we get a lot is a single father with children. Are there interventions that are prepared to accept and receive the people that are experiencing homelessness on the street?," Goodman said. "Where are these people going after we engage them?"

‘It’s not easy'

We followed Matt and his team on the road and find another park where camps are out in the open or hidden in a wash.

A man named Jose stays at one of those parks.

"I live on my own in one of those tents, and it’s not easy," he said.

Jose and his neighbors take advantage of toiletries provided by outreach.

On the edge of a concrete wall in the area is an address for where you can buy fentanyl, spray-painted in blue.

Safety is out the window here, Jose says.

"I was sleeping when this guy came and jumped on top of me and start beating me up," he said.

American Rescue Plan dollars won't last forever

Goodman says the real challenge begins in 2026 – the deadline for spending American Rescue Plan dollars.

"The test really comes when that funding expires and a lot of the programs and services that were implemented and created as a result of these dollars, how do we continue that good work that’s still very much needed past those dollars?" Goodman remarked.

So far, the Phoenix Rescue Mission has received a little more than $1.8 million in pandemic relief. Because of increased funding, Goodman says services have expanded, like its Will Work program.

Participants get paid in cash for their day of labor, working on beautification projects across the community.

Will Work is currently in Phoenix, Glendale and Scottsdale.

Goodman says funding is important but innovative ideas to create solutions are more important than spending pace.

"We spend time to identify what do we really need as a community and actually be able to dive into that and identify solutions that are appropriate and that are much needed rather than spend, spend, spend," she said.

Part 3: Homeless in Phoenix: Thousands are left 'invisible' without an ID to get services

An ID is usually kept safe in your wallet and with you whenever you’re out in public, but for those experiencing homelessness, so many are lost without it.

An agency in Phoenix is serving more individuals than ever to keep them from becoming invisible and blocked from crucial resources. Without a state ID, birth certificate, or social security card, things can get difficult for those who are homeless.

Not having those documents can keep them trapped in poverty while trying to escape it.

Barriers to moving forward

The welcome center of the Human Services Campus is surrounded by the largest homeless encampment in Phoenix, known as "The Zone," which hovers around a thousand people from week to week.

Many people are starting from ground zero, like Allison, who says she recently got out of prison.

She needs food stamps, but to get those, she needs a state ID with the help of the Homeless ID Project.

"Funds are an issue right now, so this place offers help with the appropriate vouchers and stuff so that the barrier of money is broken so that we could get the documentation we need," she said.

By the end of 2022, the Homeless ID Project will help people experiencing homelessness obtain 12,000 documents, an all-time high for the nonprofit organization.

Two-thirds of those documents will be state IDs and the rest will be birth certificates.

Rick Mitchell, the executive director of the Homeless ID Project says birth certificates are key to getting an ID.

What if you weren’t born in Arizona?

"Right now I’m told Indiana is the longest wait. It could take 4-6 months to get a birth certificate from Indiana so if someone comes in here, and they need a state ID, and they haven’t come to Arizona before, we start with a birth certificate," Mitchell said.

This means a longer wait to get out of homelessness and back into society.

‘You can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything’

"If you don’t have an ID, you actually are invisible. If you cannot prove who you are, I mean, you’re stuck. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything," Mitchell said.

The ID is the ticket to accessing resources from about 16 different agencies at the Human Services Campus. You also need an ID to get a job, housing, a car and to vote.

"So for four months, they’re here, they can’t get a job, they don’t have a state ID, they can’t get housing if they don’t have a state ID or birth certificate," Mitchell said.

These personal documents can be easily lost during evictions or during controversial sweeps of large homeless encampments. The city of Phoenix calls them "enhanced cleanups" and resumed this month.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming identification documents, prescription medications, and personal belongings had been destroyed in past sweeps that were put on pause at the start of 2022.

Meanwhile, the Homeless ID Project continues to help.

Working with a $500,000 annual budget to cover the costs of documents, providing vouchers for those in need and bus passes to the Motor Vehicle Department (MVD), is managed by a staff of six.

Allison is a bit overwhelmed by the process but says this service is a blessing as she gets on the right track.

"Being in a more stable living environment, working, being a more productive member of society," Allison said.

Now in the coming weeks when the legislative session kicks off, we expect to see a new bill proposed by Matt Gress, newly elected to the Arizona House of Representatives for District 4. He wants to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to the Homeless ID Project, essentially covering all of those document fees.

He also wants to bring the MVD to the Human Services Campus to get everything done on-site.

"What if we could provide some support to have them, offer a driver’s license on the spot, to have them as a third-party MVD dealer, or the state could help cover that cost so that you can apply for it, the appropriate documentation on sight, and also leave with appropriate identification," Gress suggested.

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