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'People are literally dying': Human Services Campus trying to help homeless, but resources are limited

County data shows 130 unsheltered people died in 2021 from heat-related incidents. An I-Team analysis found calls for help in 'The Zone' soared in 2022.

PHOENIX — Rain in Phoenix can sometimes provide a much-needed cool down in the hotter months. But for Jennifer Owens, rain this year brought on a new set of challenges.

“We have a tent,” she told 12 News. “It's not exactly waterproof.”

She shared that she and her husband wound up in “The Zone,” Phoenix’s largest homeless encampment, at the end of September after their living situation fell through.  She said they both have income, and it’s still been hard to find affordable rent.

“Like it wasn't the Taj Mahal we were living in before,” she shared. “I’d eagerly, gladly go back to the lowest of apartments just to get off the street. I’m not just embarrassed, but honestly, I'm just uncomfortable. I don't like it.”

She said they bought a cheap tent from someone selling them on the streets and pitched it at the corner of 12th Avenue and Jefferson. She said it hasn’t been easy, pointing inside the one-person tent shared by her husband and dog, Lucky.

For them, the main thing in between their tent set-up and a shelter bed is the hundreds of others in line at the Human Services Campus.

“It’s awful,” said Amy Schwabenlender. “It’s hard on everyone who works here that we can’t fully meet the need of every single person.” 

Schwabenlender is the executive director at the campus, which is home to the state’s largest shelter and other resources for those experiencing homelessness, like mental and physical healthcare – even dental care and mail services.

Jennifer’s gone on-site several times to get help.

“They’ve helped us with a birth certificate, with ID,” she said. “They'll even help you get housing. But you do have to get used to waiting in line.”

As of this year, the Welcome Center at the Human Services Campus is now open 24 hours a day to accommodate the rise in people experiencing homelessness.

RELATED: Calls for help soar in Phoenix’s largest homeless encampment

“We look at the number of people served here in the course of a year, and it’s 12,000 unduplicated people,” Schwabenlender stated.

The shelters on site are regularly at capacity. Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, has 600 beds for men and women, while other spaces on site have been turned into overnight shelter spaces to accommodate the growing need. Schwabenlender said the campus is housing about 900 people each night while more people set up tents on the other side of the campus’s black fence. 

“Going from about 250-300 last august to almost 900 this August,” Schwabenlender said. “While we are sheltering more people also. The total number is about 1,700 people every night, and that’s the most ever in this neighborhood.”

Although Jennifer’s been able to get help for some of her needs on campus, Andrew, who only gave his first name, said it’s a struggle to go on-site.

“It's hard to go in there and make it past all the homeless people selling drugs out here,” he explained. “And there's help available in there, but it's hard to get past the gate when there are so many people pushing drugs on people.”

Andrew told us he’d been homeless for about four years, and getting into the shelter for just one night in September made all the difference.

“I was sleeping on a mattress,” he said. “It was safe inside. But it was only for one night, and that didn't really help me achieve my goal. I need a place to sleep every night and be safe.”

Data from Maricopa County shows that 130 people experiencing homelessness died in 2021 from heat-related incidents. 

A 12News analysis of data from 2019 to 2022 also shows there has been a rise in calls for help in “The Zone.” 

A rise in fires in the encampment has also become a big concern as the temperatures get cooler overnight, with at least one person hospitalized this week with burns from a tent fire.

RELATED: Fire in Phoenix's 'The Zone' leaves one man in burn center

“People are literally dying,” Schwabenlender said. “They're dying more in the heat because it's hot outside and they're dying because they've been unhoused and it's not healthy to not have a home. That is the fierce urgency of now for me and my team is that when we don't do what we can, it literally affects people's lives.”

As the need grows, so do costs.

The Human Services Campus has its own budget, like each of the providers on site. Schwabenlender said they’ve started budgeting 11% more into their own budget to accommodate inflation.  And spending is necessary, even for a non-profit.

She details that people might not think about security or landscaping or groundskeeping that’s needed to keep the 13-acre property clean and house 900 people a night. Plus, they’ve had to hire more people to staff the 24-hour Welcome Center and other added resources. 

Schwabenlender also points out that the work environment can be challenging, noting that roughly a quarter of their clients have mental illnesses. Others have recently been released from jail or prison.

“It's not an easy thing to step into,” she said. “And we have to pay people to do these jobs.  I think sometimes folks might think we can have more volunteers running these programs. And it's really not a lot of roles that people want to do for free.”

In 2021, the Human Services Campus reported $8.6 million in expenses, which has almost doubled from expenditures reported two years ago. The biggest expenses were for employees and security services.

Some of their funding comes from private donations, while other sources include partner facility fees or government contracts, including the City of Phoenix.

City contract records show that since the pandemic, the City has contracted with the Human Services Campus to provide more resources, including a more than $5 million big boost from American Rescue Plan Act approved over a few different installments. But the funding is temporary.

“That money is going to run out,” Schwabenlender said. “We’re all facing a financial cliff.”

That COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act can only be used through 2024.  So the boost will eventually dry up and additional funding of that magnitude isn’t guaranteed, even though the need has never been greater.

Despite the growing need and challenges, there are success stories on the Human Services Campus.  The non-profit’s annual report points to 400 people housed through HSC navigation in 2021.  

Another sign of success is hanging all over the walls of the campus.  If you walk through the halls of some of the buildings on site, you’ll see many paintings and pieces by Darenthia Grayson.

Art has been an escape for Grayson since she was a little girl.  She’s now 70, and her work these days often imitates some of the darkest parts of her own life.

She said she lost her home in a fire a few years back and when things didn’t pan out with family, she was facing a reality she couldn’t escape - homelessness.  A police officer brought her to the Human Services Campus when she had nowhere else to go.

“I started crying,” Grayson shared. “You roll up. There’s tents all around the place. People cursing each other out. Peeing in the streets. Doing all kinds of ungodly things.”

She said she lived in and out of the shelter on-site for about a year.  During her time on campus, she turned to her art.  In August, she moved into a new apartment of her own after working with providers on campus to secure housing and furniture.  She unpacked her art supplies before unpacking her clothes.

“It’s what I do!” she laughed.

The pieces hanging around the campus have been donations to inspire those who have helped her and those who still need help getting to what’s next.

“I’ve been here all this time and I gotta give back,” she told 12 News.

But for many sleeping on the streets outside in “The Zone,” the campus can’t meet all of their shelter or housing needs right now.

“I think the city of Phoenix is doing a lot,” Schwabenlender said. “I think everybody can do more. So I wouldn't just point at City of Phoenix and say they're not doing enough. I would say none of us are doing enough. Am I doing enough of this? This advocating and sharing the message? Probably not.”


Learn more about other 12News investigations by subscribing to the 12News YouTube channel and watching our I-Team playlist. 

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