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Plans on Paper 

Can homelessness in Pima County be eliminated? Some local activists think so

The Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless has a "Plan to End Homelessness" for Pima County--it's just that not a lot of people know about it.

So says Leslie Carlson, implementation coordinator for the plan. Part of TPCH's job, she says, is acquainting Tucsonans with its specifics. (It's available at www.tucsonaz.gov/csd/pdf/1Plan_to_End_Homelessness.pdf.)

Released last year, the plan is a primer on the many causes and types of homelessness in Pima County, and it breaks down the issue into about 15 areas that, when acted upon, are meant to end homelessness.

Its crafters have charted a sensible course, according to Art Silvers, a UA professor emeritus with a background in urban planning and an interest in homelessness.

"I say it's about as sophisticated an approach as I've seen," Silvers said. "It takes into account all the different causes of homelessness and also comes up with multipronged approaches to dealing with the different types of homeless populations. I'm very glad to see this report."

TPCH had a conference on Friday, Aug. 24, in which they heard from homeless youth and adults, and discussed what needs to be done next.

Carlson was unable to provide information on any steps--tangible evidence of progress toward the monumental goal they've set for themselves--that will be taken in the coming year as a result of that conference. She did, however, pass along a list of six action items that fit into the context of the overall plan. They range from expanding collaboration between agencies to accessing weak areas in the services provided to the homeless.

Carlson also encouraged Tucsonans to take stock of the services that are currently available. About 4,000 people in Pima County are homeless on any given night, according to the plan, with nearly two-thirds of those people living without shelter, in the open. They have myriad stories about how they got where they did.

"We want people to understand that homelessness affects many, many different kinds of people," Carlson said.

There are those who aren't savvy with their money and get caught in a trap set by payday loan centers. "In my neighborhood, there's one on every corner--literally," Carlson said. For those people, there's emergency-rent assistance and financial-education programs meant to show people that loan centers are not a worthwhile option.

Convicts who have been released from prison are in a Catch-22. They often can get neither jobs nor places to live, because people are fearful of them and treat them punitively. The Primavera Foundation and Old Pueblo Community Foundation help get them off the ground once they're back in the community.

Many Americans would like to think their war vets are well taken care of, even though recent scandals at veterans' hospitals make it seem like that might not be the case. But Mary Pat Sullivan, executive director of the group Comin' Home and TPCH's vice chairwoman, said Tucson's vets are indeed well cared for, through both the Veterans Administration ("I have absolutely no complaints about the VA in Tucson," she said) and nonprofits like hers.

"Many vets aren't able to return to the jobs they were in before they went over," Sullivan said. "That makes readjustment difficult. Their family life is different. If they're a single person, it's hard for them to put down roots." There are sometimes problems with substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The vets from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just starting to trickle in; Sullivan estimates that she's worked with about a dozen vets from those conflicts over the past few years.

The pieces of a comprehensive plan of action are there, Carlson said. All these services form an interconnected net for the homeless.

"That's one of Tucson's special assets," Carlson said. "We're a community where collaboration and partnership come very naturally to us, and we do it very well. It helps us use our resources more effectively and do our work more effectively."

But those resources are limited, and that's the problem that confronts a number of organizations that provide social services.

Open Inn, an organization that provides services for homeless youngsters, sees 20 to 30 people between the ages of 18 and 24 walk into their resource center each day. These young homeless have a constant need for bare necessities.

Young adults who had used Open Inn talked about their experiences at the Aug. 24 conference. They said that at one time, they didn't realize so many people were looking out for them. But they also brought up the challenges they faced: problems inherent in getting identification cards for social services when they didn't have a birth certificate (which, in order to get one, requires that they produce identification); how they didn't feel comfortable in adult shelters; and how they can be ejected onto the street when they "age out" of certain programs.

These are the issues TPCH is tackling, according to Carlson.

"I truly believe where there's a will, there's a way," she said, when asked if TPCH's goal of homelessness was realistic. "If you don't think you can end homelessness, do you think you will do it? I doubt it."

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