Virus aid enables Mesa to attack growing homelessness The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Virus aid enables Mesa to attack growing homelessness

Virus aid enables Mesa to attack growing homelessness

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

Amid the recession, sickness and death caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mesa’s Off the Streets program stands out as a beacon of hope in a dark time.

One of the city’s wide-ranging programs supported by $93 million in federal pandemic relief, Off the Streets has rescued 89 people from homelessness, housing them in an undisclosed east Mesa motel to receive services to help them become independent and functional members of society.

Although most of the federal aid will come to a halt Dec. 31, Deputy City Manager Natalie Lewis believes she has a plan in to keep the program going through 2021 with other federal funds that have a longer expiration date.

The last thing Lewis and other Mesa officials want is to see the program come to an end after a breakthrough in addressing chronic homelessness in a more holistic manner, giving people the opportunity to address the root causes of their problem, including mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction.

Although keeping the program will cost about $1 million in federal grants, Lewis, Mesa Police Detective Aaron Raine and other supporters say that merely feeding the vicious cycle of repeated arrests, court appearances and jail time generally achieves nothing other than chewing up tax dollars.

“We’ve made so much progress and had so much success. This program really filled a gap,’’ offering a better option than homelessness, Lewis said. “We can get them housing. That allows us to work with them, as they make a commitment to move forward.’’

Mesa used some to set aside 100 rooms for homeless people who wanted help and were willing to follow the rules, which include no drugs nor criminal behavior.

“We believe we have a solution but the details are a work in progress,’’ Lewis said.

Lewis will brief the council in December on her plans to continue the program through next year.

While Lewis and Raine are gratified they have given the 89 residents an opportunity for a better life, they consider the program an important step rather than a solution to the complicated homeless issue.

Even with officers having a more than sympathetic attitude toward curfew violations and other infractions, there were 68 people tossed from the program after a pattern of repeated failures.

“Every one of those 68 can come back,’’ Raine said, if they are willing to make what Lewis calls a “commitment to rehabilitation.”

“For some of them, they weren’t ready for it, they couldn’t follow the rules,’’ Raine said.

The population assisted by the program ranges from recently laid-off restaurant workers who ended up on the streets to a 70-year-old man who had burrowed himself into a cave-like home in east Mesa, where he lived for decades.

When officers ran the man’s Social Security number, they soon realized that there was no reason for him to be homeless other than his mental illness and other issues.

He had no idea that he had $22,000 in the bank and was eligible for Social Security benefits.

Raine said the program also helped a 73-year-old woman who was talking incoherently when police encountered her. It turned out she was diabetic and had received no medical attention. She was placed in an assisted living facility.

“This is a launching pad, not a landing pad,’’ Raine said, noting that police have issued about 200 citations for urban camping to uncooperative people.

An estimated 3,200 people are considered homeless in Mesa, living in the streets and in shelters.

Assistant Police Chief Ed Wessing said even police were taken aback by the homeless camps that were found near Evergreen Park, under an overpass for the Loop 101 and Loop 202 and along some railroad tracks.

“We were finding significant large-scale encampments,’’ Wessing said. “We were able to clear significant areas that were eyesores.’’

The syringes were a clear danger to public health, but that was just part of the mess, with the city clearing about 34 tons of debris, Wessing said.

“It’s something we had never seen before,’’ he said.

With such large encampments, Raine said, there are likely hundreds of homeless still living in the streets.

“I have to step back and focus on the ones I have right now,’’ who appreciate the assistance and are working hard to improve, Raine said. “COVID was a curse and a blessing. But for COVID, this would not have happened.’’

He said Mesa noticed the need for an emergency housing program through its highly successful Community Court program.

That program arranges for defendants to receive help from social service providers as an alternative to jail for repeated minor infractions that typically stem from homelessness.

These petty crimes included trespassing, urinating in public and shoplifting. The program was recently revived under new City Magistrate John Tatz, using a digital platform, with defendants making court appearances from the hotel.

Before Off the Streets, homeless people were graduating from the program after receiving counseling and treatment, but some of them still were homeless because no affordable housing was available.

But the reality is that Mesa never would have had enough money to finance the Off-the-Streets program without the federal aid, Raine said.

Authorities consider the homeless a potential hotspot for COVID-19 and believe that getting them a roof over their heads will reduce virus spread through better sanitation and social distancing.

“Our goal is to create a permanent path to health and housing,’’ Lewis said. “It helps our enforcement of urban camping. We have to offer a bed’’ as an alternative to arrest.

The homeless can stay in the hotel for a maximum eight weeks before they are assigned to the East Valley Men’s Shelter or some other facility for three to six months. The next step would be vouchers for Section 8 subsidized housing until they can support themselves without the subsidizes, Lewis said.

While most Mesa city council members seemed happy with the program, the issue again demonstrated the political divide between members.

Downtown Councilwoman Jen Duff said she supported a homeless campus while northeast Mesa council member Dave Luna supported continuing the present program.

But southeast Mesa council member Kevin Thompson opposed taking on homelessness alone without a regional commitment from other cities.

“The homeless rates are growing and they are expected to grow more,’’ Duff said, adding that it is not possible for someone making the minimum wage to afford renting an apartment and that more affordable housing is needed.

“Many of our homeless are employed. They just can’t make ends meet,’’ she said.

But Thompson said, “I don’t want Mesa to be the next Los Angeles or Portland. You can only be so compassionate to the homeless. At some point, it becomes unsustainable to our city budget.’’

City Manager Chris Brady said he opposes buying a hotel, citing the maintenance and operation costs. Brady and Lewis said they are happy with the motel rental agreement.

Mayor John Giles said he wants to see a stronger focus on education and workforce development.

“It seems to me we should have zero tolerance for urban camping. We have a bed for you, but we also have rules,’’ Giles said. ′

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