On any given night in Arizona, some 21,993 people are searching for somewhere to sleep - somewhere to find safety for their kids; somewhere to feel secure that no one will steal their medication; somewhere they won't be raped or beaten - because they're homeless.
Imagine what it must be like for all those who have to close their eyes knowing there's no lock on the door, because there is no door.
It wasn't this way 20 years ago, when the only people on the street were hobos and winos. Certainly, there weren't mothers and fathers with babies and little children; there weren't elderly people who can't afford both medicine and rent; there weren't women who had to run from an abusive home only to find there was nowhere to go but the mean streets.
No, it wasn't like this 20 years ago, when today's situation seemed utterly unimaginable. But in the last two decades, we've seen homelessness become a way of life.
We've spent millions of dollars building shelters, and we're currently spending millions more to create a "human services campus" - to provide the homeless with a night under a roof every now and then. Until now, our theory has been to find more beds, build more shelters and cluster more services.
But a dedicated group of Arizonans - from Governor Janet Napolitano to Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon to the Phoenix Firefighters - are making a giant leap forward. In fact, these folks think they can end homelessness.
If you believe that, I'd like to show you the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City… oh, wait, the London Bridge really is in Lake Havasu City!
Remember "Tent City" back in the early '80s? It was a despicable, ugly, dangerous, dirty, makeshift "city" of refrigerator boxes and torn canvas and old carpet that held thousands of people with nowhere to go. It sprung up on land along Jefferson Street between Downtown and the state Capitol. You couldn't miss it. And once you saw it, it was haunting. For those of you who weren't around back then, here's how to picture it - just watch CNN some night and check out the people in Africa or Bosnia or Iraq living in makeshift refugee camps. That's exactly how Tent City looked.
I remember thinking it was perfectly positioned - right there in everyone's face, smack-dab in the middle of the state's bustling business-government "corridor." That awful place put homelessness on the front burner because it could not be ignored, and it grew daily, reminding every single person who drove down that street that this miserable world was a way of life for so many.
It was a mixed blessing when it was dismantled and the homeless were dispersed to old warehouses and new "shelters" - the people now had a place for a safer night's sleep, but they also were "out of sight, out of mind." If you don't have to look a problem square in the jaw every day, you sometimes forget there's a problem at all. And neither Phoenix nor Arizona have ever suffered from a lack of forgetful folks. Fortunately, though, firefighters don't fit into that category.
Billy Shields, who heads the United Firefighters of Phoenix, can still see Tent City in his mind. Twenty years ago, he was a rookie firefighter assigned to the Downtown station. "It was a new thing, but we knew a lot of homeless people," he remembers. "[President] Ronald Reagan cut funding at the federal level for mental health, and they turned people out of the Arizona State Hospital because there was no funding. Firefighters gave the first $10,000 to build the first homeless shelter. We organized the construction trades to build shelters; we started education programs that became Pappas School; and we went to schools to beg, borrow and steal books and supplies for those [homeless] kids."
So it seems only fitting that Shields and the firefighters are at the forefront of a new attack on the problem - they're leading the Arizona Coalition to END HOMELESSNESS. The "guiding principle" of the coalition says a lot about its heart and soul: "We believe that homelessness is unacceptable."
Shields and his new wife, Laura, recently hosted a fund-raiser for the coalition at the Central Phoenix home they've been fixing up over the past year. Although no media were present (I'm not sure any were invited, I know I wasn't), the stellar crowd brought together government and community leaders to hear that it's time to shift the focus from "dealing with" homelessness to "ending it." And, to encourage the community to wake up to the reality that the face of homelessness has changed.
"We're now seeing single women with kids with a lot of domestic violence," re-
ports Meggan Hempelman Medina, executive director of the coalition. "We now have single dads with children, and there's no place to put them. We now have an older population that had to choose between heart and stroke medication or paying the rent. And guess what they chose - they're living in cars. In addition, we've now got an educated population that can't find jobs - one shelter told me about a couple… he worked 30 years, she has a master's degree."
And we can't forget about prison inmates who are released each month because they've served their sentences. Many of them are released to homelessness. "We would reduce our population dramatically if we just handled the homeless inmates," Medina notes.
The message came through loud and clear. Governor Napolitano attended the fund-raiser and signed an executive order forming a group to develop a state plan to end homelessness. She put two of her top people on it - her directors of Housing and the Department of Economic Security. In addition, Mayor Gordon pledged the city's support and cooperation.
And for anyone who thinks this is "pie in the sky" needs to know this: This isn't an idea unique to Phoenix - it's being done elsewhere. And guess where? None other than the city Phoenix is about to replace as the fifth largest in the nation: Philadelphia.
For my money, you can stop playing silly my-school-is-better-than-your-school games with Phoenix and Philadelphia's weather, sports teams, food, drink and livability. They'll continue to win hands down unless we do what they've done: In 1997, Philadelphia had 813 people on the street. Today, they have 70.
"The message here," Shields says, "is that it can be done."
Philadelphia calls it "Project H.O.M.E." It was founded by a Roman Catholic nun and a community leader in 1989. By then, the city was in an uproar.
"Business people were upset that downtown had so many homeless," Medina says. "Philadelphia's mayor passed a sidewalk ordinance to keep people off the street [similar to the one passed in Tempe against the street teenagers]. The mayor had police sic dogs on people in the subway - advocates for the homeless were very upset and helped coordinate an outreach team."
The formula for Project H.O.M.E. was simple: Get people into housing first, and then get them sober, get them help and get them working. In the past, that lineup was usually reversed, with demands that people be clean and sober before even being considered for a housing placement. "How do you get sober or stay on your meds when you are sleeping in a bush and carrying all your belongings with you?" Billy Shields asks.
They key to Philadelphia's approach (the approach Phoenix wants to copy) is affordable housing - places where folks without anything can get started without a first-and-last-month's-rent-and-security-deposit; a place where a poor family can actually afford rent. Once they're safely housed, city, county and state agencies work together to help the homeless with their other needs. That might mean a job or education or training or just leaving them alone - safe for a change - to deal with their mental illness. Grants, community service funds and private donations pay for the program.
A similar approach is going on in New York under the name Pathways to Housing, which was founded in 1992. Currently, more than 400 people with psychiatric disabilities and addictions are served by the program. "The vast majority of our clients are moved directly from the streets into permanent, private-market housing," project leaders report. "The program then uses 'assertive community treatment' teams to deliver services to clients in their homes."
These are successful programs that Phoenix plans to mimic. What's even more exciting, though, is that Phoenix has a few things up its sleeve, as well.
They call it the "Human Services Campus," and it clusters all the services and homeless programs around the original Central Arizona Shelter at 12th Avenue and Madison Street. This is a regional effort to more efficiently, effectively and economically provide services that have been around for the last three years.
The mission is "to deliver high-quality human services and provide leadership and innovative solutions to help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty through collaboration among faith-based, government, non-profit, private and community organizations."
The plan has a lot of merit and widespread support, but I worry that some will see this as the "be-all, end-all" answer and think we've solved the problem. The campus won't solve the problem of homelessness - getting people permanently housed does that - but it will make it much easier for this community to help homeless people get on their feet. And it should mean far more safety.
"We can't end homelessness today, so this is just one spoke of the wheel toward getting it done," Shields says.
And there's more hope today than ever before that the spokes are being fashioned in the right configuration. Arizona now has a Department of Housing, which was created under Republican Governor Jane Hull at the urging of her staff advisor, Mike Bielecki, who himself is a former president of the Phoenix firefighters union.
Bielecki is now working with Mayor Gordon, focusing on housing, which means the mayor's office has a person dedicated to working on this issue, thanks to a grant from Jerry Bisgrove and his Stardust Foundation. (Bisgrove is devoting his fortune to getting people into homes and is the dynamo behind Phoenix's stellar Habitat for Humanity program.)
Into all of this is the Arizona Coalition to END HOMELESSNESS, which is helping bring all the players together. With a new focus and a new goal and a new burst of enthusiasm, the feeling is that, yes, this can be done.
"We believe that all people are valuable members of the community who deserve to be treated with dignity," reads a second principle of the coalition. It's a great start - I have a feeling these folks are on to something great.
To learn more about the problems and solutions of homelessness, plan to attend the 11th annual Statewide Conference on Homelessness, which will be held November 15-16 at the Black Canyon Conference Center, 9440 N. 25th Avenue, Phoenix. For more information on the Arizona Coalition to END HOMELESSNESS, visit azceh.org.