'Nowhere for us to go': Stories of homelessness in metro Phoenix come to light in annual count

Juliette Rihl
Arizona Republic
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When Gerome Harris became homeless, he didn't see it coming.

The 61-year-old had a two-bedroom apartment and a steady job cleaning machinery at JBS Beef Plant in Tolleson. 

But then, life started moving fast — too fast. The COVID-19 pandemic hit. Rent went up. Both of his parents passed away within a week of each other. He slipped in a puddle of water at work, injuring himself on the job.

“I never experienced so many things that went wrong at the same time,” Harris said.

Unable to work, he simply couldn’t keep up. Soon, he was out on the street. 

“Don't ever think this can't happen to you. 'Cause it can,” said Harris, who became homeless last year.

Harris was one of many unsheltered people surveyed on Tuesday as part of Maricopa County’s point-in-time count, an annual census of people who are experiencing homelessness.

Ollie Nyman (right, Community Bridges, Inc. Associate Director) interviews Gerome Harris during Maricopa County's annual Point-in-Time count on Jan. 24, 2023, near 22nd Avenue and Jefferson Street in Phoenix.

The data, which is collected by volunteers on a single day in January every year, is part of a longstanding national initiative to grasp the scope of homelessness in the U.S.

During the count, volunteers fan out across the county to find unsheltered people wherever they are, from bus shelters and storefronts to alleyways and established homeless encampments.

While the data they painstakingly collect isn’t perfect, it provides a key snapshot of the unhoused population and helps make up the leading source of data on homelessness nationwide.

This year’s count will give elected officials, service providers and the public a sense of the state’s homelessness crisis. Arizona's homeless population increased by 23% between 2020 and 2022, according to point-in-time count data. Meanwhile, the nationwide homeless population increased by less than 1%.

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Harris was surveyed by Ollie Nyman, associate director of housing and community engagement for Community Bridges Inc., an addiction treatment and behavioral health nonprofit. The organization is one of many nonprofits, government agencies and community groups that pitched in to make Tuesday’s count possible.

“It’s all hands on deck today,” Nyman said.

Nyman and his colleague, Jackie Breidt, set out around 6 a.m. to start looking for people without shelter. They were treading the area west of the Arizona Capitol complex and south of Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery. By 9 a.m., the duo had already counted 18 people. 

Many of those people accepted Nyman and Breidt’s offer to help find them shelter or connect them with other resources.

“One of the things I’ve heard is, ‘People choose to be homeless.’ That’s really inaccurate,” Breidt said.

Shelter beds are increasing, but it's still not enough

Breidt said Community Bridges typically has enough shelter beds for everyone they meet during the count who wants one. But, overall, there are still far too few beds in Maricopa County to accommodate everyone experiencing homelessness.

Take Phoenix: The city’s homeless population was over 6,000 at the beginning of 2022, according to the point-in-time count. But city data shows it had only 3,219 shelter beds at that time.

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That’s about 400 fewer beds than it had in 2015, when the homeless population was significantly smaller. 

The city’s new Office of Homeless Solutions, formed in June, is quickly working to close that gap. The city added almost 600 more shelter beds in 2022 and has plans to add another 800 over the next two years.

Increasing the number of shelter beds is one of the office’s core goals, said its director, Rachel Milne.

“It is not safe to be unsheltered in Phoenix,” Milne said.

Ollie Nyman (right, Community Bridges, Inc. Associate Director) interviews Luis Oetega in an alley during Maricopa County's annual Point-in-Time count on Jan. 24, 2023, near 24th Avenue and Buckeye Road in Phoenix.

'They're human': Counters approach survey with compassion

During the count, Nyman and Breidt encountered unsheltered people from all walks of life.

Luis Ortega, 40, lost his job a month ago and has been staying in a makeshift tent with his girlfriend for the past week. He collects cans and metal scraps to get money for necessities.

Nyman asked him: “Can you tell me your reason for not going into a shelter?”

“I don’t know how to get there,” Ortega replied.

Jerica Villegas, 46, has been experiencing homelessness for the past eight years. She and her boyfriend have been on a waitlist for nonprofit housing support since the summer. 

Jerica Villegas is interviewed for Maricopa County's annual Point-in-Time count on Jan. 24, 2023, near I-17 and Van Buren Street in Phoenix.

“We can’t go anywhere,” she said while standing in front of her campsite above the Interstate 17 highway. “There’s nowhere for us to go.”

Each person is asked the same survey questions, including how long they have been homeless, whether they have any medical or mental health conditions and whether they have any criminal history.

Even if a person declines to participate in the survey — and on Tuesday, some did — they are still counted.

After years of helping conduct the count, Breidt has the questions memorized. She tries to make it a conversation, she said. The goal is to make people feel comfortable and respected.

“To really remind them that they’re human,” Breidt said.

Juliette Rihl covers housing insecurity and homelessness for The Arizona Republic. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @julietterihl.

A grant from the Arizona Community Foundation supports coverage of housing insecurity on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic.

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