The long way home: Insights into Arizona’s homelessness crisis


A homeless man walks along a Phoenix canal with a cart holding his possessions and a bicycle.

Photo by Gregory E. Clifford/Shutterstock.com

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Naketa Ross knows firsthand how life necessities we take for granted can disappear overnight — a bed to sleep in, access to a bathroom, the security of a locked door, a place to store belongings and a retreat from summer’s scorching heat. When she aged out of the foster care system in Chicago at age 18, she had no family support system. She had no safety net. Soon, she and her 3-month-old daughter had no home.

Naketa Ross stands outside of an ASU building
Naketa Ross

She found refuge in a women’s shelter, where she repeatedly told herself, “It’s going to get better. Hang in there. It’s going to get better.”

Ross had enrolled at Southern Illinois University but didn’t have the life skills needed to succeed in college, so she flunked out. After working minimum-wage jobs for a decade, she reapplied and, this time, succeeded. She even began working as a research assistant studying resiliency, a concept she knew all too well from her own personal struggles.

After graduation, her career led her to Arizona, where she worked as a case manager for youth in the foster care system. Determined to help marginalized youth thrive as she did, she founded ResilientMe, a nonprofit that provides youth from foster care with the essential skills to transition successfully into adult life.

In 2020, Ross was selected to serve as a fellow in Arizona State University’s Knowledge Exchange for Resilience (KER). Through the 12-month fellowship, representatives from the community and the university come together to share knowledge, discover gaps or opportunities, and respond to challenges. During her fellowship, Ross sought to strengthen resilience in the foster care system to decrease the rate of homelessness and incarceration in young adults who have experienced foster care.

“I love all things resilience. So I found out about KER and I was like, 'I have to be a part of this,'” says Ross. “It was a wonderful experience. It changed my work by giving me a more comprehensive view of resiliency.”

Filling an information gap

KER is committed to building community resilience in Maricopa County through use-inspired research. Across ASU, KER and other programs are unleashing the power of data analytics and computational modeling to form a comprehensive view of Arizona’s housing crisis. The information is designed to empower policymakers and community leaders, not only to remediate homelessness but also to prevent it.

Arizona has one of the worst homelessness crises in the nation. The number of Arizonans without a place to call home increased 23% over a recent two-year span, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. During the same period, nationwide homelessness rates held steady.

Solving this problem is like assembling pieces of a king-sized jigsaw puzzle that are scattered across governments, nonprofits, corporations, universities, philanthropic organizations and other entities.

These organizations routinely amass enormous stores of data tied to homelessness. Far too often, this data has been siloed within sectors, agencies and programs. Yet, experts agree that sharing or compiling this information would enhance care coordination, lower costs and, most importantly, improve outcomes.

ASU is part of the largest data collection project of its kind in Arizona, called the Arizona Housing Analytics Collaborative (AzHAC). Through AzHAC, Arizona’s three public universities — ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University — use community collaboration, data analytics, predictive modeling, qualitative inquiry and dissemination strategies to help organizations prevent and intervene in homelessness statewide.

“People who experience housing instability and homelessness aren’t all geographically in one place. And even when they are, they may meet criteria for different definitions of homelessness,” says Kristin Ferguson, a member of the AzHAC team and a professor in ASU’s School of Social Work. “And they don’t always frequent one system in the way that people with a chronic health condition, mental health challenge or unemployment might. People who have moved into homelessness show up in multiple systems. At this point, the information gap primarily resides around those systems not sharing data, and data that are shared are not always linked.”

Funded by the Garcia Family Foundation and Amazon Web Services’ Health Equity Initiative, AzHAC strives to close that information gap by:

  • Mapping the incidence and prevalence of homelessness at the city, county and state levels, with a particular focus on historically excluded populations.
  • Determining the health and psychosocial characteristics of people most likely to end up homeless and those who are able to return to stable housing.
  • Identifying which interventions are most effective for helping people to overcome homelessness.
  • Performing predictive modeling to identify leading indicators of housing insecurity to prevent homelessness. 

Similarly, KER teams up with community partners to develop anticipatory models, dashboards, visualizations, apps and predictive data tools to inform decisions addressing homelessness.

Working with the Valley of the Sun United Way, KER developed a comprehensive measure of poverty in the state called the Household Expenditure and Income Gap Highlighter Tool (HEIGHT), which allows users to explore how many Arizona households are struggling to pay for basic needs through geographic and demographic lenses. It also created the Maricopa County Evictions Dashboard, which provides visualizations that track eviction rates and yearly filings.

Maricopa County leads the nation in evictions, with more than 67,000 eviction cases filed last year, according to records from the Maricopa County Justice Courts.

“We can see that the rate of eviction is now as high as it’s been since the 2008 housing crisis,” says Patricia Solis, executive director of KER, a discovery unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

Identifying barriers to affordable housing

Surging eviction rates mirror surging housing costs in Maricopa County. The cost of homes has skyrocketed in hot real estate markets like Phoenix, where the median list price for a home was $539,900 in June, up 9.1% year over year. Phoenix and Scottsdale have also experienced some of the highest rent increases in the nation, climbing as much as 30% year to year, according to Apartments.com.

As the cost of housing spirals out of reach for many Arizonans, they find themselves making impossible choices between necessities. For example, Ross worked with a child who was in the foster care system because they were left at home to watch their sibling at too young of an age.

“Their parents had to work two jobs to pay this crazy rent. And the child was really young, but the parents couldn’t afford day care. What do you want? They have to work to eat, to live,” says Ross.

A report from ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, funded by the Arizona Community Foundation, details how other states create more affordable housing. The report, “State-Level Legal Barriers to Adopting Affordable Housing Policies in Arizona,” explores widely used policies that can increase the affordability and availability of housing. However, many of these tools are preempted or limited by Arizona law, including:

  • Inclusionary zoning: This policy requires or incentivizes developers to construct a certain number of housing units that are affordable to low- to moderate-income people as part of development or redevelopment projects. Arizona is one of only seven states that prohibit local governments from enacting mandatory inclusionary zoning.
  • Rent control: These policies limit the amount that a landlord can charge for rent. Only 182 municipalities in New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland and Washington, D.C., have strict cost ceilings for rent. However, rent-stabilization measures that limit how much a landlord can increase rent for existing tenants are becoming more common. In Arizona, the state preempts local governments from enacting rent control.
  • Tax increment financing (TIF): Using this tool, municipalities encourage development in a particular area, typically by declaring it as “blighted,” targeting it for redevelopment and placing it under a special tax district. Over time, a portion of the property taxes collected within the TIF district is placed into a fund to subsidize development and construction within the district. For example, Minnesota has created TIF districts specifically to encourage affordable housing. While TIFs are widely used across the country, Arizona is the only state where TIFs are not permitted.

“The lack of affordable housing and homelessness are connected,” says Ferguson. “But it’s not just about the housing system. Employment, education, transportation, physical and mental health, and substance use are all part of the solution to address homelessness.”

Making connections to services and solutions

Arizona’s homelessness problem is exacerbated by the very systems in place to solve it, says Micaela Mercado, a research assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

While many people take “service literacy” and internet access for granted, imagine if you had neither and wound up homeless.

“You might not be aware of what you need to do to access rental assistance when you can’t make your rent or how to negotiate with your landlord to avoid an eviction,” she says. “And without access to the internet, you may not know how to navigate a website to ultimately submit the forms you need to qualify for services. These issues are not the fault of the individual, but of the system or the interventions that created these kinds of barriers.”

Ross sees these issues come up regularly. The young adults she works with don’t always have access to a computer, Wi-Fi and a printer. They may have health insurance but can’t afford dental care. Or they can’t find a doctor who will take the insurance they have. Others live in food deserts without access to fresh vegetables and fruits.

“The systems themselves are so complicated,” she says. “There are a lot of barriers in place that set our kids up for failure.”

The ASU Action Nexus on Housing and Homelessness, based in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, is dedicated to removing these barriers by breaking down siloes across Maricopa County government systems and nonprofit agencies to improve system delivery and effectiveness and bring ASU resources to bear in the pursuit of lasting solutions.

For example, the Action Nexus is working with federal officials to allow temporary housing to be built on land the U.S. government administers near the Phoenix metro area. It has also established a Lived Experience Advisory Council, made up of people who currently or formerly experienced homelessness who can advise assistance providers on the most acute needs. Additionally, the Action Nexus has launched an innovative program to pair people experiencing housing insecurity as roommates to share costs.

Ross says barriers to finding help — combined with a lack of resources — act like a funnel that leads to homelessness, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Many foster kids are one caring adult away from success,” she says. “As my life story shows, with the right resources and the right support, a person can go from homelessness to helping others.”

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