No Refuge: Tucson's Homeless Crisis is Getting Worse

Tina Casalvera became homeless in 2019 after she lost her job at Walmart and was unable to pay her rent on time. She was evicted.

Casalvera, 49, has been unable to find a new place to live with an eviction on her record, so she joined Tucson’s growing ranks of homeless people. She sets up camps, but on more than one occasion, city officials have given her 72 hours to pack up her belongings and move along. 

“I can see the looks that you get from people, and it makes you just feel so worthless sometimes,” said Casalvera. “Even though you know what you do every day and what you try to accomplish. You have to do certain things to live. If you can’t get a job, you have to go in a dumpster to get an article of clothing—maybe to go to that interview—because you don’t have the money to buy something to wear. And then people will see you doing that, and automatically, you’re no good because you’re doing it.”

Casalvera is just one of a growing number of people who can’t find a place to live. Since 2019, the homeless population in Tucson has steadily grown, and the demand for social services has increased along with it. Meanwhile, the municipal costs associated with homeless camps in the city have also increased. In the last three years alone, different departments within the city of Tucson, Pima County and the state of Arizona have spent more than a million dollars cleaning up the remnants of homeless encampments in the Tucson area. 

While various government entities and nonprofit organizations are working to help get people off the streets, the problem continues to persist raising questions about what is actually needed to build lasting solutions to homelessness in Tucson.  

From 2019 to 2020, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in Tucson—people sleeping in their cars or on the streets—increased by 60 percent, according to the data collected during an annual Point in Time count. The PIT count, which is facilitated by the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness—a local coalition that serves as the Continuum of Care for Tucson and Pima County—is an attempted count of the number of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in the community. It typically takes place on one night during the last 10 days in January. 

This data is collected in communities throughout the county and compiled in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment report, which seeks to capture an estimate of the total number of homeless Americans in the United States. While it has been widely recognized that PIT counts tend to undercount the number of people experiencing homelessness in a given community, they still offer important insights into the humanitarian crisis unfolding right in our own backyard. 

Last year, TPCH was unable to do a PIT count for the unsheltered homeless population in the Tucson area due to safety concerns associated with the pandemic, but city officials say the number of people experiencing homelessness in the community has continued to increase in 2021. (This year’s survey was scheduled for this week, but with the Omicron variant driving COVID cases to new highs, it was
canceled.)

There are many reasons homelessness is becoming more prevalent in Tucson and throughout the country. Even before the pandemic, the homeless population in the U.S. has grown for four consecutive years, according to HUD’s  2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

Experts say it will take years to fully understand how the pandemic has impacted homelessness, but there is a consensus that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem through higher unemployment rates, housing crises and more generally, forced economic disruption. 

In addition to the hardships caused by the pandemic, other factors influencing rates of homelessness across the nation include a lack of affordable housing and increasing costs of living coupled with largely stagnant wages and a growing number of people struggling with addiction and mental health problems.

“I think if there are increases right now, they have a lot to do with reaping the consequences of a long, long time of not investing in community,” said Daniela Figueroa, the chairperson for the TPCH Continuum of Care board and the director of programs for Youth on Their Own, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting youth in Tucson who are experiencing homelessness. “Until we start really giving folks economic supports and autonomy and a chance to thrive, until we start really investing in social services, until we start really investing in mental health services and increasing access, we’re going to continually see this cycle.”

The perfect storm

In Tucson, lack of affordable housing is a serious problem contributing to homelessness. The values of homes across the city increased by 29.5 percent in the last year, with the typical home value at just under $300,000, according to Zillow’s Tucson Market Overview. This means people have become more reliant on rental units, but the cost of rent in Tucson has also been increasing for years. The average monthly rent for an apartment in Tucson is now $1,115, according to a report from RentCafe.

Since the pandemic hit, there has also been a reduced number of shelter beds available throughout the city. “Our shelters are full on any given night,” said Brandi Champion, the recently hired Housing First program director for the city of Tucson. “It’s rare to have even 10 beds available at any given time in the community that’s not restrictive.”

When shelters do have openings, there are sometimes restrictions in place that make the services unappealing to those who are unhoused. People may be hesitant to accept shelter services when they limit their autonomy or separate them from their belongings, pets, significant others or support systems. 

“We’re trying to make shelter more user friendly so that we can get these people that are hesitant to come off the street to come off the street,” Champion said. “We can get these people into housing, get them going towards a better living, and then wrap services around them—maybe to get them directed toward a better way of thinking. They don’t have to be stuck in this cycle of drug abuse and homelessness and drug abuse and homelessness.”

The city’s effort to reduce the red tape that stops the unhoused from accessing services is part of its “Housing First” strategy. The model, which prioritizes getting individuals experiencing homelessness into housing before providing them with additional support and services, was officially implemented in 2020. In addition to making shelters more user friendly, the model also seeks to overcome other barriers that commonly keep people from accessing housing including a lack of employment, substance abuse problems, mental health diagnoses and previous criminal or eviction records.  

Both the city of Tucson and Pima County are now using the Housing First model to address homelessness in the community. The Pima County Housing First Program was first implemented in April 2019 with the goal of reducing chronic homelessness and limiting interactions between homeless individuals and the criminal justice system. 

Despite the local government’s shift towards a Housing First model, there is currently still a lack of low-demand shelter beds and affordable permanent housing units in the community. In fact, Tucson’s rental vacancy rate has hovered around 3% for most of 2021—a historically low rate indicative of a highly competitive market. With limited housing and shelter inventories, the number of people sleeping on the street has increased significantly, leading to increased visibility of homelessness throughout the city.

“Homelessness is getting worse, undoubtedly,” said Sergeant Jack Julsing, head of the Tucson Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team. The separate unit within TPD was created in January of 2020 in response to an increasing number of complaints about homelessness. The team consists of three TPD officers—Julsing, Officer Jacob Valenzuela and Officer Josh Parrish—who work in conjunction with outreach workers to respond to nonemergency reports related to the unhoused community in Tucson and connect people experiencing homelessness with social services. Since the creation of the Homeless Outreach Team, at least 100 to 150 calls for service are diverted away from TPD’s patrol officers every month. 

“I don’t really want patrol officers taking the homeless calls because I don’t think that’s something that patrol should be doing,” Julsing said. “They’re there for you when you need us in an emergency. Not for, ‘Oh, can you kick this homeless guy out of the wash because I’m tired of looking at him?’ That’s not your what your tax dollars are paying for.”

Julsing and his team have been more lenient towards people setting up camps outside since the start of the pandemic, but TPD is still tasked with the duty of posting 72-hour notices for the unhoused to vacate when there is illegal activity, when a camp grows to be too messy or when someone persistently complains about the presence of homeless people as a part of the “homeless protocol” for both the city and the county.

“We’re beating a dead horse”

When an encampment “poses a threat to public safety” or someone files a complaint to the city of Tucson, Pima County or the police department, homeless protocol is implemented. Through the protocol, the area is inspected, law enforcement officials and outreach service providers meet with the people at the camp and eventually, a 72-hour notice to vacate is posted at the site.

Forcing people experiencing homelessness to leave their camps may reduce visibility of the problem and satisfy those who have complained, but it doesn’t serve as a long-term solution. Often times this only uproots the unhoused and forces them to sleep outside in different location. 

Not only does this make it more difficult for outreach workers to find the people they’ve been working with and connect them with housing and services, it also puts people experiencing homelessness in a position where they have to move all of their belongings to a new place—sometimes without transportation or outside help.

In this process, they are frequently forced to leave things behind and start from scratch. 

Once the people experiencing homeless have cleared out, the camps are cleaned up by either a local government entity or a contracted company, and this task can vary in intensity. Some cleanups are simple, but others can be time consuming and expensive depending on how much and what gets left behind. There might be a need to bring in a contracted company when a cleanup involves larger items or human waste and needles. Abandoned camp sites sometimes also contain large quantities of trash, clothing, pieces of furniture or other personal items that need to be removed.

“We throw so much stuff away when we go to these camp cleanups,” said Cliff Wade, an outreach specialist and veterans advocate who works closely with the unhoused population in Tucson, during a city homeless protocol focus group that took place on Oct. 28, 2021. “That is what the campers were using to survive.”

As far as the trash goes, people experiencing homelessness do not have access to their own trash cans, which can make it hard for them to dispose of their garbage—especially when there are no public trash cans close to their camps. The same thing goes for human waste. Without public restrooms, people experiencing homelessness may have no choice but to go to the bathroom outside near their camp sites. These areas can grow to be a safety hazard when trash and human waste start to accumulate.

If the camps were set up on public property, depending on who owns the land, a county or city government entity is usually largely responsible for facilitating a cleanup of the area.

This duty can fall upon different county departments including the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, Pima County Natural Resources Parks and Recreation and the Pima County Department of Transportation. From the city of Tucson, people from the Department of Transportation, the Environmental and General Services Department and the Parks and Recreation Department frequently facilitate cleanups. Additionally, at a state level, the Arizona Department of Transportation also coordinates various cleanups in the Tucson area.

Public records obtained from the city, county and state departments that handle homeless encampment cleanups in the Tucson area reveal that, since 2019, these agencies have collectively spent more than $1 million cleaning up what gets left behind at abandoned camps. In addition to the monetary cost, government and contracted company employees have spent thousands of hours of their time at these cleanups. From 2019 to 2021, the city of Tucson Parks and Recreation Department alone recorded that employees spent 755 hours cleaning up the remnants of homeless camps in Tucson.

“We’re beating a dead horse here,” Champion said. “These guys are utilizing resources like crazy on the same camp sites, and we’re not solving anything. They feel the morale is going down in the other departments because they keep having to go and clean these sites over and over and over again.”

Champion hosts a “homeless protocol focus group” with different actors from the city, the county and various nonprofit organizations to discuss the state of the homeless situation in Tucson and potential solutions at least once a month. At the Oct. 28 meeting, which was hosted on Zoom, several city officials compared the process of homeless encampment removal to playing a game of “Whack-A-Mole” due to the continuous cycle of camps being established, the homeless being removed and the city coming in to clean things up.

This raises the question: Is the current protocol’s strategy for addressing homeless encampments in the community an effective use of resources?

While the current cycle may seem futile, people throughout city continue to express concern about the presence of homeless encampments in their neighborhoods and near parks and other amenities frequently used by the public. Some people genuinely fear for their safety and others just don’t like seeing the camps and what they entail in their vicinity.

“There is such a spectrum,” said Ann Charles, the chief of staff for the city’s Ward 6 office, at the Oct. 28 meeting. “We go from people who get upset if they see police talking to a homeless person, to people who…go on a bicycle, see a homeless camp—even if it’s 50 yards away—and call in and say you’ve got to get rid of it.”

There is an immense amount of pressure placed on our local government bodies to both address citizen complaints about encampments and to help the homeless. But the two tasks sometimes seem to be at odds with each other, which puts government officials in the difficult position of deciding whether to force campers to leave or to continue to receive angry complaints.

“It’s a very difficult balance,” said Julsing, who expressed that police action surrounding certain encampments is frequently impacted by whatever public opinion is at the time. “Whoever’s the loudest gets their way—whether it’s right or wrong.”

Despite how people may feel about the issue of homelessness, one thing is certain: It’s not going away anytime soon. It is going to take a monumental effort to address this problem not only by our local and federal governments and nonprofit organizations, but also by members of our community.

People experiencing homelessness—who are already dealing with a tremendous amount of trauma trying to survive—face a seemingly constant barrage of blame and ridicule for ending up in a horrible situation. They are often all painted as addicts and criminals who are lazy and choose to be homeless, but the reality is, they are human beings who are doing the best they can to get by. 


A costly cycle


The long list of stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness not only grossly over-simplifies a massive humanitarian crisis, it also contributes to a growing tension between the housed and the unhoused and, in many cases, an unwillingness among the housed to help people who are homeless.

It may be true that a high percentage of the unhoused community does struggle with substance abuse, but addiction is a widespread problem impacting millions of people all over the world. In the United States in 2020, an estimated 40.3 million people over the age of 11 were struggling with a substance use disorder, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And these numbers only seem to be growing as the opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc in communities across the nation.

“The truth is: People who are experiencing substance use—it could be you, it could be me, it could be anybody,” said Bryanda Acuña, a former peer support specialist at CODAC, a nonprofit organization that seeks to address mental health, addiction and trauma in Arizona. “Substance use is a coping skill. It’s not the best one, but it is a coping skill. We’re just told that people who use that coping skill are bad people, and they’re not. They’re just like anybody else struggling out there.”

When it comes to mental health, research estimates that at least 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States has some form of a severe mental illness. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, when the U.S. government initiated an effort to deinstitutionalize and reform mental health practices, thousands of people who had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness were removed from psychiatric facilities where they were often receiving substandard care. This effort sought to improve the standard of care for people experiencing mental illness, but it largely failed to provide alternative services which put a vulnerable population at risk of becoming homeless and led to an incredible number of people who were experiencing mental illness moving through the criminal justice system.

Today, we are still dealing with the repercussions of these “well-intentioned” policy shifts and funneling people with mental health problems through emergency departments, jails and prisons. This comes at great cost to our society in a variety of ways.

For one, it places financial stress on our communities with researchers estimating that the monetary cost associated with a chronically homeless individual—including medical expenses, time spent in jails and prisons, and other costs related to shelters and treatment centers—to be between $30,000 to $50,000 a year. This cost can be reduced dramatically—by close to 50 percent—if the person is placed in supportive housing.

Tina Casalvera, who was evicted after losing her job at Walmart, discovered that once you’re on the street, it’s hard to turn things around.

“Even if I do have a mental illness, it’s not why I’m homeless,” Casalvera said. “It’s not what keeps me homeless. What keeps me homeless is nobody wanting to give me a chance.”  


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