Monday, December 04, 2017

Affordable housing shortage drives homeless rural Arizonans to live in parking lots and woods

Doug Stewart (left) volunteers several nights a week to help the local homeless population in Gila County. (Arizona Republic photo by Thomas Hawthorne)
 A growing nationwide shortage of affordable housing is hurting rural residents, since many of the safety nets that help metro areas don't exist in rural areas. Seven percent of the nation's homeless live in rural areas. Rent prices in rural areas are lower, but that doesn't help rural residents much because incomes are lower too."The National Rural Housing Coalition found that almost half of all rural Americans spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on rent," Aiden Woods reports for The Arizona Republic, the latest in its six-part series on rural homelessness.

In Gila County, just northeast of Phoenix, homelessness is particularly bad. The county was once a thriving mining region, but now 22 percent of the population lives in poverty, and there is no homeless shelter. The county has only 53 federal Section 8 housing vouchers, so people must wait for years for one. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition says that there are only 31 available and affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households in the county.

It's hard to get an official count of Gila County's homeless, since the yearly official count is conducted in late January, when most homeless people have fled elsewhere for warmth or are surfing a couch until the weather warms up. In warmer weather, most of the homeless sleep in the local Walmart parking lot, since the company has a nationwide policy of allowing anyone to sleep in their vehicles in their parking lots.

The county's housing director told Woods that federal homelessness-prevention grants wouldn't be large enough to justify the time spent applying for them. To receive those grants, "a community must set up what's called a Continuum of Care, an organization that brings together housing, service providers and local officials. It’s the first step in fighting homelessness at the local level," Woods reports. Arizona has three major COCs: one each in Maricopa and Pima counties, and one for the rest of Arizona. The latter COC spreads about $4 million in grants across the state, and is supposed to have a representative from each of Arizona's 13 rural counties, but Gila County doesn't have one.

Most of the efforts at combating homelessness in the county come from a private citizen, Doug Stewart, who spends thousands of dollars of his own money every month bringing whatever supplies he can muster to the homeless. Stewart regularly meets with local lawmakers and law enforcement to try to organize a more comprehensive program.

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