Unnatural Disaster

 In Reflections
Reflections from the Front Lines

Unnatural Disaster

Natural disasters are often what lead to a crisis response

It’s been 11 days since my last post and 23 1/2 weeks since losing my sense of smell. I am able to smell bleach, urine on sidewalks, and some citrus household cleaners. It’s a start. And I dream of smelling coffee and chocolate…

That smelling inability is still nothing in comparison to experiencing homelessness. For another two weeks running, the Human Services Campus Outreach Team has counted more than 1,000 individuals unsheltered in our neighborhood. And we have opened the Respiro shelter with a gradual ramp-up to 100 people. One hundred less of a thousand is not really noticeable. The sidewalks and streets are full. The posts and chains installed by the City nearly two years ago are now used as structural components to hold up walls of tarp, canopies of tent, and to hold leashes of dogs. High temperatures are now daily in the 90s.

There is no quick way out of this increase in unsheltered homelessness across Maricopa County. Unless, well unless, elected officials and decision-makers would treat it as a humanitarian crisis.

Back in 2005, I had just started my job at Valley of the Sun United Way shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the lives and homes for thousands of people. United Way was working with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army to find shelter for people who were evacuated and relocating to Phoenix. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum became a temporary home for hundreds of people.

Natural disasters are often what lead to a crisis response. COVID-19 and a global pandemic seemed to start a similar response, although not really for addressing long-term homelessness. The lack of affordable housing existed pre-COVID. And a lack of housing is not healthy.

The Coliseum is not available according to sources who have inquired. People ask me about unused shopping malls. Those seem to be snatched up by developers who want to gentrify neighborhoods and create housing for higher levels of income. I hear the Arizona Coyotes are finished playing at the stadium in Glendale….. maybe we can use that for a while.

We are behind the curve. And the current pace of housing development does not seem to be at a pace that is going to allow us to catch up, maybe not ever. Unless we respond to homelessness like a natural disaster. I should add, that I don’t believe the response to Hurricane Katrina was perfect; there are people who were stranded, only helped for a short time. And there are lessons to learn from that response.

I made a quick video last Friday in my car. Looking at the Pioneer Cemetery with the Campus behind me. I thought about the campaign I’m participating in for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. And I said, “I sit at the intersection of housing, homelessness, and health care.” There are days when the life and death, the extreme conditions stand out more than others. Earlier that afternoon I stopped to say hello to a client named Ray. I’ve been helping him with this wheelchair every so often. He pulled a Tony Robbins book out of his backpack. It’s a really worn book. He pointed to several pages and sections that he wanted to read with me. I couldn’t help but notice his bandaged foot with his toes hanging out; the upper part of his foot not covered has become so calloused and discolored from dragging on the ground. I wanted to heal his foot, and all he seemed to want was someone to read with.

Health issues, mental health challenges, undiagnosed illness. They can all contribute to someone losing their housing, and they can develop while someone is unhoused.

It’s so clear to me, this intersection of housing and healthcare. It’s the most unnatural of disasters. Is that why it isn’t urgent?


About the Human Services Campus

Founded in 2005, the Human Services Campus is a collaborative force of partner organizations united on one campus to end homelessness. Located just west of downtown Phoenix, 16 independent agencies on the Campus see nearly 1,000 individuals every day, offering a holistic range of client services including: reunification with family and friends; mental, physical and dental health; shelter; employment; meals; legal services and housing. Having all of these resources in one location with intra-agency communications makes it more feasible to provide a customized engagement for each client to help end their homelessness. For more information, visit www.hsc-az.org.

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