Why A Homelessness Data Tool Ignited Anger In Phoenix

By Christina Estes
Published: Monday, July 6, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, July 6, 2020 - 9:06am

cop walks by trash pile
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Trash and belongings left behind as city crews prepared to clean on Feb. 5, 2020.

The latest action by Phoenix leaders to address homelessness has sparked criticism. The conflict centers around police involvement.  

A single line, consisting of 13 words, generated many more words during Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Several people expressed concern about a line on Item #28 on the July 1, 2020, council agenda. It read: “The Phoenix Police Department will be the primary group to access the portal.” 

The portal will be a web-based platform to provide users with real-time information about shelter availability. Some people who work with and advocate for others experiencing homelessness don’t like police on the front lines. 

“We need trauma-informed care workers to respond to calls for homelessness instead of the police who literally have an obligation to ticket, fine and arrest people,” a man told council members during public comment.

“I have worked with clients who are unsheltered and I will say — even though it’s anecdotal for all of these clients — without exception fear of encounters with police is an ever-present stressor,” a woman said.

“We should be defunding the police," said another woman. "Not giving them more tools to further criminalize houselessness."

Marchelle Franklin, the city’s Human Services director, said the portal is not designed to criminalize people experiencing homelessness but to provide police officers and outreach teams easily accessible information about where shelter beds are available. While stressing she is not a law enforcement representative, Franklin acknowledged there could be situations where behaviors lead officers to issue citations or arrest someone.

Some speakers expressed frustration at what they described as lack of community involvement. One man said groups that work with people experiencing homelessness were not invited to be part of the portal conversation and called the comment period just before the council voted, ‘"a farce,"

Tyler Rosenteel with Crisis Response Network will oversee the portal’s design, development and maintenance. He told the council he had shared the plan with more than a dozen community service providers a week earlier. Besides police, Rosensteel said social service providers will have access to the portal and the opportunity to provide important data. 

“It will also allow us to track impediments to a person seeking shelter-either geography, religious preference, belongings, disability, pets, household type, etc,” he said.

Rosensteel said the concerns that exist around police interaction with people experiencing homelessness exist with or without the portal “and those need to be addressed by a comprehensive plan around homelessness that data from this portal could help us inform.”

In a few months, Rosentell said the data could help determine what types of shelter and services are needed most — and where. Just before the coronavirus outbreak, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego began publicly pushing other cities, the county and state to do more to address homelessness and provide housing options. She told KJZZ the city provides 85% of emergency shelter beds for Maricopa County and said the model is not sustainable.

To pay for the portal, Phoenix will use $200,000 in one-time federal funding from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.