Off the Streets

Public officials, both locally and nationally, seek to end homelessness

Despite a shaky economy and slashed government budgets, the Obama administration recently set lofty goals for eliminating homelessness, including: "Finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years."

Here in Tucson, on a blistering hot day, Fred Fagan sat among his worldly possessions under a large shade tree in a midtown park with his wife and little brown dog. His thoughts on Obama's goal?

"If someone walks out here giving free tickets to homes, it's possible," he says. "Most of the guys (who live on the street) don't want a home. They're happy the way they are."

Steve Nelson, incoming co-chair of the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless (TPCH), agrees.

"Some chronically homeless people don't want to be housed," Nelson observes. "They want a life of no responsibility, and that's a choice they make."

Fagan, who gives his age as 70-ish, isn't in that group. Instead, Mother Nature dealt him and his wife a devastating blow. He says they lived on Bolivar Peninsula south of Houston until two years ago, when Hurricane Ike thundered through.

"The hurricane took it all," Fagan says. "People don't realize how close they are to being homeless."

Fagan says he's been in Tucson for seven months, and finds a little work here and there to pay for food. He and his wife sleep at a campsite near the park.

"When people find out you're homeless, they don't want to talk to you," he says. "It's like you have a disease."

Homeless people such as Fagan can be found all around Tucson.

"The common perception of the homeless is scruffy guys on the street," remarks Leslie Carlson, coordinator of the TPCH Plan to End Homelessness (PTEH). That view, though, isn't accurate. According to statistics complied by both TPCH and the Arizona Department of Economic Security, only a fraction of those considered homeless actually live on the street.

Others classified as homeless include individuals and families temporarily housed in shelters, and teenagers who live with friends because they have no other place to go.

Statistics collected in January show there were 1,561 homeless people counted living on the streets in Pima County. More than 2,900 people were in shelters, and another 1,681 school-age children were staying with acquaintances; an estimated 1,000 adults were doing likewise.

The number of people counted living on the streets in Tucson has been increasing every year since 2006. It's gone from 642 to the current 1,561, an increase of 143 percent.

But those numbers don't strictly suggest an increase in people on the streets, says Linda Kot, the outgoing TPCH co-chair. "Some of the difference may be because we're getting better at counting people," she says.

While a local rise in homelessness is not surprising, given the nationwide economic downturn, the economy didn't stop the Obama administration from recently issuing a report entitled "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness."

In the report's preface, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, declares that chronic homelessness for many, including veterans, could be ended within five years. For families, he adds, it can be eliminated in 10 years.

"You have to keep in mind," cautions Dia Barney, another recent TPCH co-chair, "that 10 years ago, the goal was 10 years. So the administration is tacking on five more years."

However, the number of homeless veterans nationally has fallen "remarkably" in the last few years, to 131,000, says Nelson. In addition, the Obama administration is about to unveil the largest effort in the nation's history to address homelessness. One of its major components, Nelson says, is an emergency housing program that should provide shelter within 30 days to qualifying households.

Families who are doubled up or in unstable housing situations, Nelson explains, will be eligible, and the program in Tucson will cover both rent and utilities for 12 months. "It's primarily for those who have suffered job losses," he adds.

As a result of efforts like these, Barney is somewhat optimistic that the administration's goals for ending homelessness can be met. But she thinks it will require a change from past strategies.

"If we target prevention," Barney says of those facing eviction or foreclosure, "we see better results. We've been targeting the chronically homeless for a long time."

Barney admits that not everyone involved with TPCH agrees. "Some people believe in spreading our resources out and giving something to everybody, but that doesn't have a high success rate. When you target a population, you're more likely to get success."

Barney also thinks the whole community needs to be involved in the effort to end homelessness: "We had a PTEH Task Force with decision-makers and started to make headway."

One of that group's recommendations was to have both the Tucson City Council and Pima County Board of Supervisors "endorse the PTEH Leadership Council as the implementation body for the Plan to End Homelessness." However, that recommendation went nowhere with the politicians, because of a fear of duplicated efforts.

One new method being considered is the "100,000 Homes Campaign," a nationwide effort being launched at next week's National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference. The program seeks to find housing for the chronically homeless and uses a registry to help accomplish that objective.

"Let's work together," Kot says about Tucson's homeless issue, "and involve the community."

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