Homeless Numbers Explode As UMOM Fights To Help Arizona's Struggling Families Find Housing
Recent head counts have placed Arizona seventh in the nation for chronically homeless residents. That does not include the rapidly growing number of Arizona families who are forced into homelessness as rents rise and affordable housing dwindles.
For a few of the homeless families in the Phoenix area, hope hangs tight in the hands of children playing on the jungle gym at UMOM New Day Center's courtyard.
There, a little girl attempts to jump across a set of metal bars to see if she can swing safely across the gap and land safely on the other side.
"I did it! I did it," she hollered to her older sister.
UMOM provides help for her family and hundreds of others in crisis each year. Melissa Steimer, UMOM's chief development and marketing officer, has seen a swift uptick in Maricopa families slipping into the widening cracks of homelessness.
UMOM tries to catch them before they fall.
"A family comes here for shelter and then they get the wrap around services," said Steimer.
Some are referred to UMOM by volunteers who find them during the annual point-In-time (PIT) homeless count.
Kelly Taft oversees the PIT count for the Maricopa Association of Governments.
"A lot of the outreach teams are people who do this for a living. They're there with homeless service providers. So they do tend to know those areas very well and they know pretty much where to look and where individuals may be found."
In the past five years, PIT counts show the number of unsheltered individuals ballooned 149 percent, while the number of families who were homeless dropped 8 percent.
That may appear to be good news for families, but Steimer said homeless families are often underreported because they tend to avoid being found.
"They don't want their kids taken away." Steimer said the risk is too high for parents who fear Child Protective Services will intervene. "They're probably one of the populations that's the most invisible in this community."
While scouring the central Phoenix neighborhood for homeless residents hiding near Burton Barr Library, Michelle Blau with the city of Phoenix put it this way: "There is shame and embarrassment built in to the stigma of being homeless," especially when parents face the possibility of homelessness with a child.
As it is, each year, UMOM finds housing for some 500 families and another 400 go through what's called rapid Rrhousing.
"We go out and help them search for an apartment that is affordable," Steimer said. "The lease gets put in their name but we'd support them."By helping the household stabilize, UMOM encourages the parents to get skilled job training, while the children go to school. As they do, UMOM slowly decreases its support until the family is on its feet.
"You're not going to make them successful if you don't wrap your arms around all the different needs and everybody comes with unique needs," said Steimer.
Looking at the problem from a wider lens, Darlene Newsom, UMOM's chief executive officer, sees a crisis ahead as homeless family needs outpace housing supply.
"In this last three months in Maricopa County, we had 180 families on our waitlist, waiting to come into emergency shelter," she asked rhetorically, "Where are those families staying now? Half of those families are on the street with their children and that's unacceptable."
The latest family housing unit unveiled earlier this year near Indian School Road and the Interstate 17 was nearly sold out before its grand opening.
Newsome pointed out that none of the funding for that housing, or a unit underway for elderly homeless residents, comes from Arizona's state budget. Instead, UMOM is working with federal funds and private developers to open housing as quickly as possible. Right now, there is no funding to build another family complex.
"There was a safety net that prevented homelessness, that prevented hunger in our state, and that safety net was totally wiped out during the recession, and we have yet to replace that safety net," Newsome said. "I mean, our investment in this state currently is $5 million statewide to help all target populations homeless youth, individuals, the chronic population and families and veterans and the elderly."
Steimer went further and compared Arizona's investment in preventing families from falling through the cracks to other states.
"You look at a state like Massachusetts, and it's more like $400 million is serving all of those needs."
"The state has to take a harder look at creating avenues to create affordable housing," Newsome said. She also said she is lobbying lawmakers hard on UMOM and its future residents' behalf. "This year we have some bills at the Legislature that will hopefully increase some of the funding streams that can develop affordable housing."
So that one day, the children playing on the jungle gym at UMOM, and thousands of other children just like them, will be secure knowing they are free to climb without worry in their own backyards.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has bee modified to correct Michelle Blau's position.