Reporting on homelessness in Arizona

Person sleeping on a bench.

Almost 11,000 homeless people live in Arizona. Almost 2,000 of them have chronic substance abuse issues, and more than 1,700 are seriously mentally ill.

It’s an issue that affects local economies, public spaces, law enforcement and health care systems.

A panel discussion Thursday morning about homelessness featured speakers reflecting on a new report prepared by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

"Mental Health, Substance Use, and Homelessness" is the title of the report.

“You can’t really talk about one without talking about the others,” one participant said.

Mental health issues and substance abuse may surface even if they’re not the original cause of homelessness, simply as a result of being homeless, said Amy St. Peter, deputy executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments.

It’s very difficult to rehouse someone after they’ve been on the streets, said Tom Simplot, director of the Arizona Department of Housing.

“AHCCCS is one of the largest housing providers in the state of Arizona,” Simplot said, referring to the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state health care system.

The agency is focused on whole person care, said Shelli Silver, deputy director of health plan operations at AHCCCS.

“How do we work across systems?” St. Peter said. “How do we address these three issues in one integrated plan?”

The Superior Court of Maricopa County tries to bring an holistic approach, said commissioner Sarah Selzer.

If you are in a criminal proceeding and also in a mental health procedure, the court tries to work with a health care provider.

Are there differences in how mental health and substance abuse are handled by the courts?

“You can’t medicate someone into sobriety,” Selzer said.

Outreach has excellent results, St. Peter said.

‘“They don’t want help,’” she said. “We hear that over and over. But outreach teams are such experts at working with people to bring them in for care. ... I’d love to have more outreach teams across the state.”

The “us and them” mentality is “fundamentally damaging,” she said.

Selzer agreed.

“We’re all just a little bit of brain chemistry away from psychotic episodes,” she said. “If we could reduce the stigma, it would really change the approach.”

Homelessness in rural areas is often overlooked. Cities and towns are the primary target for federal and state resources, Simplot said. “It tells us we have work to do,” he said.

Data sharing between agencies and entities needs to improve, St. Peter said.

“The other lesson here came from the pandemic,” she said. “There was a silver lining to that. We got a lot better at working together. ... It would be great to figure out how to institutionalize this going forward.”

What does the Department of Housing do to address homelessness?

Convening and collaborating with service providers to learn where funding will do the most good, deputy director Silver said.

Is housing the place to start?

“People stabilize more quickly when they have housing,” St. Peter said. But housing with wraparound services is most effective, she added.

“Build more housing,” said Cindy Stotler, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Housing. ”We haven’t built public housing in years. ... We need all kinds of housing for people at all levels.”

The Morrison Institute is Arizona's premier public policy research organization.

Top image courtesy Pixabay