Amid consistently increasing rates of homelessness over the past several years, the Arizona Housing Coalition Research and Policy Director Joanna Carr attributes these rising numbers to the lack of affordable housing in the state.
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According to recent data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Index, there are 193,961 households considered to have “extremely low income” in Arizona, and 76% of such households have a severe cost burden. There are currently only 26 affordable and available rental homes per 100 extremely low income renter households in the state, putting Arizona among the poorest-ranked states for affordable housing in the nation.
In Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, the homeless population has surged by 35% between 2020 and 2022. Carr says this is the biggest increase they’ve ever seen. In Phoenix alone, the number of homeless people is currently 3,096, compared to 2,380 in 2020, representing a 23% increase.
Carr said the pandemic was a major driver of this increase in homeless people, due to many people losing their income as well as an increase in housing prices. The lowest-income households, she said, were hit the hardest by economic hardships resulting from the pandemic.
“There was a huge influx [of people moving to Arizona] and so that started to drive up the prices because the [housing] demand started going up. At the same time as those increases in prices, so many people were losing that income. [This was] job loss due to the pandemic. Things like ad hoc expenses and funeral expenses, having to take care of children who couldn’t go to school … [were a huge reality through COVID-19].”
She says this increase in homelessness can be seen alongside increasing rates of substance abuse in cities like Phoenix and Tucson, especially with fentanyl. Carr emphasized the importance of specifically addressing mental health, drug use, and housing together in an interconnected way. According to an article published by ASU News, of the almost 11,000 homeless people living in Arizona, almost 2,000 have chronic substance abuse issues, and over 1,700 are seriously mentally ill.
“Drug use and mental health issues are a cause and effect of homelessness. If somebody becomes hooked on fentanyl, which is very easy to do … it’s a very quick downward spiral, then the ability to manage life and manage day-to–day affairs while using that drug [becomes very difficult] and then that can lead to housing loss and homelessness … [And] people in [a homeless] situation are more likely to come across drugs and use drugs as a coping mechanism.”
Car said the significant lack of affordable housing in the state can largely be attributed to a general stigma against the homeless population, also known as NIMBYism (NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard”).
“We often say [NIMBYism] is our biggest barrier to affordable housing,” Carr said.
She said this stigma can largely be seen at meetings of the planning commission and city council, which are required for a proposed affordable housing development to be approved.
“It’s predominantly often the white middle class homeowners that go into these meetings, not the people that are impacted by homelessness,” she said. “And that’s why you often hear the real stigma of, ‘There’s going to be more crime, my property value is gonna go down, we don’t want that kind of person in our neighborhood.’”
Carr said the Housing Coalition is advocating for statewide anti-stigma campaigns to combat this barrier. She also emphasized the coalition’s focus on bridging the gap between housing and health care given the significant link between being homeless and poor health outcomes, specifically highlighting the large prevalence of family homelessness in Arizona.
“The disruption to a child’s education is huge when a child is experiencing homelessness … A child who experiences homelessness is more likely to experience homelessness as an adult. We always say housing is health care, because [when] people don’t have a place to stay, even things like affording health care and having health insurance … is not often a reality.”