Community Voices: Understanding Homelessness at the Human Services Campus

by Amy Schwabenlender
Community Community Commentary Community Voices Education residential Amy Schwabenlender April 16, 2021

Located just west of Downtown Phoenix, the Human Services Campus is a public-private collaborative offering emergency shelter, housing and a vast array of holistic services across a 13-acre campus. Tenants include Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), St. Vincent de Paul, the Lodestar Day Resource Center and numerous others. (Photo: Steve Carr)

About the author: Executive director of the Human Services Campus (HSC) in Downtown Phoenix, Amy Schwabenlender manages the 16-partner collaborative, and develops strategic work to end and prevent homelessness beyond the HSC.

When you see a person experiencing homelessness in Downtown Phoenix, what goes through your mind?

Do you say to yourself “why doesn’t he just get a job?” Do you wonder why she chose to be homeless? Do you cross the street because you think all homeless people are dangerous, violent or mentally ill? Or do you simply ignore what you see?

Homelessness is a complex issue. On a typical night in Maricopa County, more than 7,400 people experience homelessness. Nationwide, more than half a million people are living on the streets.

The reason for someone’s homelessness is as diverse as they are. So are the myths and misperceptions about the issue.

The common denominator: they don’t have stable housing. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough shelter beds for everyone who needs one, and the lack of affordable housing in the Phoenix metro area makes it difficult to place everyone in a stable home.

In February, the Phoenix City Council voted to approve a zoning request change allowing additional shelter beds on the Human Services Campus for individuals experiencing homelessness, but rejected a 100-bed, low-barrier shelter at Andre House, which is adjacent to campus.

While we are grateful for the support of Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and the City Council to be able to shelter more men and women experiencing homelessness, the outcome is bittersweet. Best practices show that having access to a bed is a critical first step to moving people from street to home. Being able to provide these additional beds is vital, and we’re concerned that by rejecting the Andre House shelter, those who are most vulnerable will be literally left out in the cold.

We know there is a great need for smaller, specialized shelters for individuals with significant challenges and the importance of continuing those conversations.

Which gets us back to the myths and facts about homelessness.

Amy Schwabenlender became the executive director of the Human Services Campus in 2018. Prior to that, she spent 13 years as vice president of community impact for the Valley of the Sun United Way. (Photo: Elaine Kessler)

Let’s start with a question: Should people be treated differently based on how they look and because they don’t have a home?

Perhaps the best way to get to “no” is to counter some of the myths with facts.

First, many people experiencing homelessness do have jobs — sometimes more than one. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates as many as 40-60 percent of people experiencing homelessness nationwide are employed. But a paycheck doesn’t necessarily solve their homelessness or other challenges. We see that every day at the Human Services Campus, where we work with thousands of men and women to move them from street to home.

Second, people experiencing homelessness are no more likely to be violent, dangerous or criminal than a person who is housed. They are parents trying to find work while living in a car with their children. They are teens with no supportive adults in their lives or senior citizens with poor health and a fixed income struggling to get by. Let’s not judge them, but think of them as human beings in need of shelter, and find ways to make that happen.

Third, there is no evidence supporting the contention that people experiencing homelessness prefer to live on the streets. Quite the opposite. We know that men and women offered access to shelter beds and housing welcome the opportunity, often with tears.

What, then, is the solution? We’re working on it every day. We know it needs to be a regional strategy. And we also know there are many people in the Valley who are committed to the issue, and to continuing to make a difference. While we work collectively to solve homelessness, let’s remember people’s humanness.

About this series: Led by Phoenix Community AllianceCommunity Voices is a series about the impact of homelessness in Downtown Phoenix, and commonly-held myths, stereotypes and misperceptions of the issue.