Mesa launching broad effort on homelessness The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa launching broad effort on homelessness

Mesa launching broad effort on homelessness
Mesa
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By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Operation Off the Streets represents Mesa’s most ambitious plan yet to address the chronic but growing problem of homelessness, with more families spotted on the streets during the pandemic-driven recession.

Fortified with $500,000 in federal Coronavirus Relief Act funds, the new two-month city initiative hopes to rescue anyone who wants a better life from the dangers of urban camping – though the focus is on helping the newly homeless who have lost their jobs and their homes.

“Honestly, I think we will be seeing more homeless families. Our officers see them more than we think,’’ Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis said.

A team of about 40 police officers will target homeless “hot spots,’’ where they tend to congregate, and offer them an opportunity to get off the street immediately.

But it’s also possible that Mesa City Council, which was divided on the issue, could expand the program by using more federal dollars to buy a motel that could become a shelter operated by A New Leaf, a multi-faceted social service agency.

“It has increased over the last two months. We are seeing an increase in our homeless population – not only locally but from out of state,’’ Assistant Police Chief Ed Wessing said.

“This is a public safety issue as well as an issue related to COVID-19,’’ he said. “It’s happening not only in our parks; it’s happening in our public areas.’’

He said the operation also adds a new walking beat downtown to reassure residents that it is safe as businesses re-open. The homeless historically tend to congregate at Pioneer Park and near the Mesa library.

Officers will offer the homeless a lifeline that includes a hotel room, food from the Feeding Mesa program and counseling to determine what measures are necessary to get them off the street permanently.

If the homeless resist help – and don’t want to address their substance abuse, mental health or legal problems – they could be arrested and diverted to Mesa’s Community Court program, where the focus is on self-improvement rather than punishment.

Either way, the goal is the same: help people into a better life and eliminate a potential second wave of COVID-19 spawned by the unsanitary living conditions.

“Our initial plan is to have a heavy presence for the next 30 days,’’ Wessing said.

Operation Off the Streets for Everyone’s Health and Safety builds upon a previous campaign from 2018, Operation Mainline, in which officers contacted the homeless downtown and arranged social services, Lewis said.

“In essence, what we are doing is taking that model and expanding it citywide,’’ Lewis said. “It’s a citywide and sustained effort.’’

Operation Off the Streets will include up to 100 hotel rooms a night in west and east Mesa to temporarily house the homeless so that the city can comply with a federal court ruling, Martin v. Boise.

The rooms are being rented in blocks to conform with the court ruling, she said, and the number can be expanded if needed.

“Our goal is that this is a launch point for them,’’ Lewis said.

The court ruling bars cities from arresting the homeless for merely having no other place to go, requiring cities offer shelter as an alternative to arrest for petty crimes.

Although the motel rooms are only a temporary housing solution, it gives A New Leaf and other social agencies an opportunity to get the homeless the help they need to move into more permanent housing, Lewis said.

“Our goal is to fill up these hotel rooms,’’ she said.

Normally, Mesa has only 189 emergency beds available, leaving officers with few options when dealing with the homeless, she said.

Maricopa County also is housing the homeless in Phoenix and Mesa, attempting to eliminate the possibility of a COVID-19 cluster, according to Bruce Liggett, county  human services director.

The county is leasing a central Mesa motel to isolate homeless people with symptoms of COVID-19, he said.

A second facility leased from A New Leaf isolates nearly 50 homeless people considered a higher virus risk because of age and medical conditions.

“I am super excited about this. I think there is more of an opportunity to make a true difference in our community,’’ Councilwoman Jen Duff said about Operation Off the Streets. “It’s a one-on-one approach. It’s a great way to have a friendly approach, to help someone down on their luck.’’

Duff said there are two distinct groups of homeless – those who recently lost their homes and the chronically homeless who have spent decades on the streets and are more difficult to reach.

‘’I think we can make a huge difference’’ in the lives of the newly homeless, she said, noting they typically never wanted to live on the streets but ended up there when they lost their jobs and could not pay their rent.

Lewis said that another pot of $10 million in federal aid is being devoted to preventing about 5,220 Mesa families from becoming homeless. These programs include housing vouchers and rental assistance, helping people pay overdue rent.

The federal aid also supports more than 950 people served in homeless and domestic violence shelters.

No council members opposed preventing homelessness, which has been identified by Mayor John Giles as a council priority.

But Duff and Councilman Kevin Thompson, who represents southeast Mesa, clashed over the expansion of social programs aiding the homeless.

The flash point was a debate over a proposal to use the federal funds to buy a small hotel that A New Leaf would essentially run as a shelter. The non-profit already operates the East Valley Men’s Center, the La Mesita family shelter and a domestic violence shelter.

“I don’t want to sound callous, but I am of the opinion, if you build it, they will come,’’ Thompson said.

He said such programs turn Mesa into a magnet for attracting the homeless, while other East Valley cities, especially Gilbert, do little or nothing to address the problem. He said Gilbert doesn’t have pockets of homeless hanging around its downtown like Mesa does.

“I hate that Mesa ends up becoming the brunt because our neighbors aren’t doing a whole lot,’’ Thompson said. “Homeless people are not going to gravitate to an area with no services.’’

But Duff called Thompson’s argument unrealistic.

“They are already here. The question is, what do we do with them? Do we want them on the streets?” Duff said.

“We have non-profits here, we have light rail here,’’ Duff said. “We can leave them on the streets or get them into housing.’’

Vice Mayor Mark Freeman said he supports the program on a temporary basis, even if the city can’t afford to operate it forever. He said services need to be spread out throughout the city to avoid creating an area dominated by the homeless.

“At the end of the day, we have a responsibility to reach out to everyone in our community,’’ he said.

Even before the pandemic, Maricopa County’s annual Point in Time survey in January identified 7,419 homeless people across the county, with 3,767 unsheltered and 3,652 sheltered. That amounted to an 18 percent increase in unsheltered residents from a year ago.

In Mesa, the unsheltered homeless increased to 338 this year from 206 a year ago and 144 in 2018, according to the survey.

City Manager Chris Brady said that the $90 million in federal virus relief funds presents Mesa with a rare opportunity to look at homelessness in a more thorough manner.

“We could position ourselves with an asset that goes well beyond December,’’ when unspent funds must be returned to federal authorities, Brady said.

Although the motel is not in Brady’s present budget for relief funds, his presentation to the council raised the possibility of spending $3.5-$5 million on “permanent sheltering options.”

Giles said he supports the idea of buying a hotel as a “legacy purchase,’’ turning a blighted, crime magnet into a facility that can help people turn around their lives.

But he and Freeman both criticized other East Valley cities for failing to do their fair share on the homeless issue.

“I can tell you right now, it’s not good,’’ Giles said when asked about cooperation from other cities. He said previously that discussions about a regional solution to homelessness have been sidetracked by the COVID-19 crisis.

“I think our neighboring cities need to understand that Mesa is not the big brother taking care of everyone’s homeless,’’ Giles said.

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