Lindsay Walker, The Daily Independent

Despite the job losses and mental toll brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Tempe saw a slight decrease in its homeless population this year. 

When the annual Maricopa Association of Governments Point-in-Time count took place on Jan. 25, there were approximately 384 unsheltered people living in Tempe compared to 396 counted in January 2020. The regional count did not occur in 2021 due to the pandemic. 

In Maricopa County as a whole, there were 5,029 people living on the streets on that same night, a number that has steadily risen over the last seven years as the Valley sees a dramatic increase in rental costs. But COVID-19 has certainly taken its toll on an already vulnerable group. 

“Our region has seen increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness for seven consecutive counts, which is also consistent with national trends,” said Jessica Wright, Homeless Solutions manager for Tempe. “The pandemic has exacerbated challenges. Our region has seen the loss of jobs, particularly low wage jobs, which places people more at risk of experiencing homelessness. Increasing housing costs in our region also makes more people vulnerable to homelessness.” 

Wright said the city welcomed the lower count as “good news” as the region works to address the growing issue of homelessness and to create a more responsive system. 

“Tempe has a long history of serving individuals and families in our community who are homeless or at risk of homelessness,” she said. “We have developed a broad range of services that includes: street outreach, case management, connection to social services, crisis response, mental health resources, victim and veteran services, emergency and transitional shelter, housing navigation, and permanent housing solutions.”  

Wright said that common causes of homelessness outside of job loss are a lack of affordable housing, a lack of support systems, the need to connect with a mental health provider and substance abuse. Domestic violence has also been on the rise amid the pandemic, leading to isolation and, often, homelessness. 

The city has created partnerships with nonprofits, the Tempe Community Council, nearby Arizona State University and others to help get people off of the streets and address the root of the issue. The Tempe City Council has also invested in homelessness solutions fiscally in the last two annual budgets, according to Wright. 

LeVon Lamy, deputy human services manager-housing, said that the city is constantly evaluating what it can do to help. That includes Tempe’s purchase of the Rodeway Inn in 2021 to be used for transitional housing. 

“We are continually evaluating short and long-term housing needs for those experiencing homelessness in Tempe,” said Lamy. “Congressman Greg Stanton recently announced the award of $500,000 in federal funding to the City of Tempe to be used toward the purchase of another motel, which would provide temporary housing while those in need transition to permanent housing. This will be a future project to meet more housing needs in Tempe.”