As I sit in a Prescott City Council study session discussing a proposed city ordinance that enforces a camping ban, I think to myself, “I don’t think our community has any idea what homelessness really looks like.”
Over the past two years post-Covid the face of homelessness has changed dramatically. The days of seeing the woman dressed in tattered clothes pushing a shopping cart, or the older gentleman sitting on a corner with a bottle of beer in a brown paper bag, are over. Today, the calls we get are from two-income families with children who relocated for work but can’t afford to pay first and last month’s rent, it’s the retired professionals who are on fixed incomes being told their home is being sold or the rent is now tripled overnight.
Long gone are the days when young men and women who have relapsed in a recovery program, or a longtime client who’s lost the struggle to maintain housing, people who have lived in Prescott their entire lives, arrive at my door to check in for shelter. Today the shelter is filled with hardworking men and women who ask the night staff to wake them early so they can get to work on time, or come to shelter late, tired and weary after a twelve-hour shift.
Most of the folks we’re used to seeing in the shelter are gone, replaced with new guests who are experiencing homelessness for the very first time. Why, you may ask? There isn’t just one reason.
Many people face rising rents and low-paying jobs, but add in factors like eviction, conviction, or one catastrophic life event, and it’s almost impossible to recover. We all know there’s no shortage of building in the area, but how much of that building is attainable? What can families do? What can couples do? What can single people who’ve been living in their cars with their dogs do? That’s the central question.
Frank Sinatra once sang, “That’s life … you’re riding high in April, shot down in May.” But with so many barriers, such as having to make three times the rent every month, having to pass extensive background checks, or simply having the wrong breed of pet, it’s extremely hard to get back on top in June. Many area nonprofits, working hard day in and day out, know the answer: housing. That housing goes by various names — ‘attainable’ and ‘workforce’ housing are just twoexamples — but the clearest is ‘affordable housing.’ Lately this term has become a hot button, almost taboo.
‘Affordable housing’ has come to carry the baggage of a stereotype. It conjures images of rundown apartment buildings and large complexes like Cabrini Green in Chicago or Avalon Gardens in Los Angeles, public housing projects known for drugs, gangs and frequent crime.
In practical terms affordable housing is just that: affordable. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines ‘affordable housing’ as that for which the occupant pays no more than 30% of gross income, including utilities.
I’m not completely sure where the stereotypes were born, but they extend to human beings as well. I occasionally see a Facebook or Nextdoor post about someone panhandling on a corner, and I make the mistake of reading the comments. Most of these are respectful and compassionate, but for every ten kind messages there will be one that absolutely dehumanizes the subject of the post.
What many people forget is that while that person may not look like us, act in a way that is always socially acceptable due to unseen circumstances, or is unhoused, they are still human. That is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. It’s hardly fair to judge someone on one period in their life when they are without a home, clean clothes or medication that’s vital to their mental health. This time is a snapshot in their lives, a moment that can and will pass. Homelessness, addiction, mental illness or circumstances do not define a person, that’s what the person is experiencing right now.
If I have a rash across my face due to an allergic reaction, no one would call me Itchy Allison. Rather, Allison is experiencing an allergic reaction that has caused a rash. It’s the same with homelessness: it’s not a definition, it’s an experience.
Area agencies including CCJ, Prescott Area Shelter Services, USVets, A Safe Place and Catholic Charities, to name just a few, are taking this topic head on. They are working tirelessly to find creative and sustainable solutions that will not only help those in need of medical care, substance-abuse treatment and job resources, but also housing. This is hard work, but what makes it harder are these ideas that words or people are different from what they really are.
Returning to that proposed camping ordinance, the city is in talks with community stakeholders to refine the ordinance. The city attorney attended a Collective Impact Partnership meeting in March, and a meeting with stakeholders is scheduled. Our area nonprofits are not giving up. Our work isn’t always fun, it’s messy and can be very daunting, but it’s always good work.
Affordable housing is housing that’s affordable, and a person experiencing homelessness is still a person. As we navigate our everyday lives, just remember to lead with kindness, compassion and most of all understanding. Sometimes things are not what they might seem.