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Agencies remain focused on ending homelessness here

One of the makeshift shelters found during a local Point-In-Time homeless count.
Daily Courier file

One of the makeshift shelters found during a local Point-In-Time homeless count.

PRESCOTT – On a cold day at the end of January, more than 200 staff and volunteers from local nonprofit agencies and veteran organizations scoured the city seeking out the homeless, whether they were hiding under bridges, camping in the woods, living in a shelter or getting a hot meal at a local church.

The goal was not to roust the homeless or invade their privacy. It was to give state housing officials a glimpse of how many people in this community, and across the state, are in need of housing and social services. Such statistics are the backbone of state and federal financial support.

Yavapai County is one of 13 counties that was part of the annual Point-In-Time survey for the Balance of Continuum of Care. The total count suggests that homelessness in this part of the state has decreased slightly, and shelter and transitional housing occupancy is running at just over 84 percent.

In this county, however, the numbers have grown some, up from 141 unsheltered individuals last year to 160 this year, 39 of those families. Of those numbers, 40 percent are in Prescott.

In Yavapai County, there are some 505 emergency shelter, transitional housing or permanent housing beds for this population; on the night before the count 471 of those beds were filled, or over 94 percent capacity. A year ago, that number was 251.

As for veteran homeless, there were 41 listed in Yavapai County, up from 35 last year. Across the 13 counties, there were 112 veterans living in various shelters and other such housing and 193 listed as unsheltered. In 2015, those figures were 107 sheltered and 409 unsheltered.

The report states the number of households and persons in emergency shelter have decreased over the last two years; there was a 52.8 percent decrease in unsheltered veterans this year and a 6.7 percent reduction overall in homelessness in this part of the state.

With such data, the state Department of Housing may suggest that homelessness is on the decline rather than on the rise, and that there are still emergency shelter and housing beds available, agency leaders said.

Area agency leaders who serve veterans and non-veterans alike say they want state leaders to be wary of jumping to conclusions, preferring that they see this data as just one piece of a larger puzzle. The counts should not be an excuse for state housing leaders to take their eyes off the need because of a slight decline in numbers, they say.

“The PIT Count is a useful tool but fails to report a “real” number of homeless individuals,” including veterans in these communities,” said Ed Shier, program manager for the Health Care for Homeless Veterans at Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System. “It is a base number, but those persons not located or identified for the PIT Count remain “uncounted.” It does reflect the continued need to develop resources that can provide affordable housing, employment, sustainable income and transportation services.”

U.S. VETS Initiative Executive Director Carole Benedict, the leader of a local non-profit collaborative focused on ending homelessness in Yavapai County, concurs.

“The important thing to remember about the count is that it is just a snapshot in time,” Benedict said.

At the Homeless Stand Down for Veterans last fall, Benedict said they served 175 homeless veterans.

Coalition for Compassion and Justice Executive Director Paul Mitchell said his agency’s figures last year indicate that some 650 people who came to them for help identified as homeless.

Like many of his nonprofit colleagues, Mitchell said the Point-In-Time is a way for state leaders to track homelessness, and to help them determine best practices when addressing how to combat the issue. Such data, though, always needs to be paired with the realities of those working in the field.

“I really operate on the need that presents itself at our doorstep,” Mitchell said.

The one positive Benedict sees coming out of all these studies, and conversation, is a determination by like-minded people to work toward ending homelessness in their communities.

Housing, of course, is a top priority, with more and more providers endorsing the Housing First model, Benedict said.

Many of the homeless wrestle with substance abuse and mental health issues – 25 percent in each category were listed as reasons for homelessness in this year’s report – and more providers are beginning to embrace the Housing First model to end homelessness, Benedict said. In this model, treatment for a person’s challenges, be it sobriety, employment or mental health, is secondary to finding them a safe, affordable place to reside.

“I like seeing the momentum that is building,” Benedict said. “I see attitudes changing, and shifting, and that is great. That is what is going to work to end homelessness in Yavapai County.”

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