This summer downtown Phoenix has gotten a new addition to its skyline, albeit one that is very close to the ground.
A couple hundred people without permanent homes have been setting up a makeshift camp each night in a parking lot. The asphalt lot is big enough to fit about 60 cars, surrounded by chain link fence, with a few portable toilets and some awnings set up for shade.
The homeless camp is run by a shelter next door that doesn’t have any more room.
“This is sort of an overflow to our overflow shelter,” says Mark Holleran, chief executive of Central Arizona Shelter Services. He says he opened up the parking lot, which he leases from the county, to homeless people a few months ago, after the number of people showing up at the other homeless shelters he runs nearby began to spike. Holleran said he had “nowhere to put them, to be honest.”
The spike in homeless people seeking shelter in downtown Phoenix is a bit of a mystery, says Jodi Liggett, an advisor on homelessness to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. She says by the city’s count, the number of chronically homeless in Phoenix has actually gone down in the last five years. But, Liggett notes, police have recently been more tightly enforcing the city’s ban against sleeping on the streets, after complaints from businesses.
“It makes it very hard for business people in the area to come and go to their place of business or even conduct business when you have folks lying the ground in front of your entrance,” says Liggett. “So they have tightened up enforcement.”
Liggett says the parking lot shelter is a way to deal head on with the consequences of the homeless sleeping ban, rather than “chasing them in to another precinct or in to another city.” That’s what Holleran, of CASS, calls “the leaf blower approach.”
The parking lot encampment “may not look really good,” Holleran says, “but it allows us to say here’s the problem, now what can we do.”
One long-term answer to that question, he says, is more affordable housing.