Annual survey finds Tucson homeless population rose 60% since 2018
Resumed point in time count finds decrease among 'vulnerable' groups & fewer unsheltered than preceding year
Pima County's homeless population increased 60 percent over the last five years, leaving just over 2,200 people living outside, in shelters, or transitional housing, according to point-in-time count conducted in January.
Conducted on Jan. 24 and released this week, the canvass found good news and bad news about the county's homeless population as worries over rising rents and an increasingly visible homeless population have driven new policies and legislation.
Around 200 volunteers—along with staff from government agencies and area nonprofits—went out into the community in teams to survey the most populated areas of the county and briefly interview people who are living without a roof over their heads, as well as people those in shelters or transitional housing.
The count found 2,209 people in 1,666 households were living in shelters, transitional housing, or living without shelter in Pima County, according to a report published Monday by the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness. Around 1,500 were left without shelter entirely, and 708 people were at shelters that January morning.
Additionally, the count showed 82 families were experiencing some form of homeless in January, including 142 adults and 130 children.
Five years ago, just 1,380 people were facing some kind of homelessness in Pima County, TPCH said.
"While an imperfect measure, the annual count is an important tool used to inform priorities for federal, state, and local funding," said TPCH. "It also helps identify trends and craft solutions for the needs of vulnerable individuals and families."
Since 2007, cities and counties that provide care for homeless people are required to conduct point-in-time surveys in January, and send that information to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help guide federal dollars for shelters, housing and support services.
In Pima County, the study was led by TPCH, with help from the University of Arizona's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, Pima County's Department of Community and Workforce Development, and the City of Tucson's Housing and Community Development Department.
Overall, the number of persons experiencing homelessness in Pima County "increased significantly" during and following the COVID-19 pandemic, said TPCH.
"This is in large part due to rising rental costs, a shortage of available affordable housing, overall reductions in shelter bed capacity compared to pre-pandemic years, and systemic inequities," the survey report said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented strain on our homelessness response system. Although we have a long way to go, the positive momentum over the past 12 months highlights the importance of continued community collaboration and innovation to address the crisis of un-sheltered homelessness facing our region," said TPCH board chairperson Jocelyn Muzzin.
The report included both data from 2022 and 2018 to better reflect changes "methodological differences" from the point-in-time count caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during the previous three years.
TPCH did not conduct an in-person count in 2021 because of the pandemic, but the group used sampling methods to gather information about area homeless people in 2022.
Rising homelessness in Arizona has become a major political issue, with Democrats like Tucson Mayor Regina Romero touting new program to provide rental assistance, while Republicans like Arizona state Sen. Justine Wadsack have moved to criminalize homelessness.
During her "State of the City" speech in December, Romero touted Tucson's response to homeless people, highlighting the city's efforts to distribute $53 million in federal rental assistance to 9,800 households in Tucson and South Tucson, as well as a $10 million effort to convert vacant hotels into "transitional and low barrier" shelters "to provide support services for those experiencing homelessness."
Romero also said the city is taking "concrete action" to support nearly 31,000 older adult households who are "cost-burdened" and pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent
Meanwhile, Wadsack sponsored Senate Bill 1413, which would have required cities to "immediately" remove homeless encampments, even if they're located on private property, impound possessions, and and criminally charge unsheltered people living on private property. However that was among the dozens of GOP-backed bills vetoed by Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs.
While the data showed homelessness increased, there was some good news in the recent results, especially for vulnerable populations, including young people, families, and veterans.
The homeless rate for youth households, which includes people under 25, decreased 39 percent from 2022, and was down 6 percent from 2018.
Meanwhile, the rate of homelessness among families decreased 43 percent from 2022, and 21 percent from 2018.
Among veterans, the rate of homelessness decreased 14 percent from 2022, and is down 4 percent from 2018.
However, TPCH cautioned that while veteran homelessness has decreased, veterans were more likely to be unsheltered on the night of the count. The number of veterans living on the streets is 47 percent higher than it was five years ago.
Further, while there were positive trends, the rate of homeless among single adults increased for the fifth consecutive year, leaving 1,413 people unsheltered this January. And, the number of "chronically homeless" people has more than doubled since 2018, TPCH said, adding that 77 percent of those identified as chronically homeless were unsheltered.
While the 2023 count showed a growing number of people enduring homeless in Pima county, there are signs that current efforts may be gradually reducing overall homelessness in the county following a period of rapid growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.
There are also signs that homelessness is increasing among people over 55, and the survey found increasing homeless rates among people who have American Indian or Indigenous heritage.
Earlier this year, a HUD report found Arizona had the highest increase in the number of homeless youth last year, even as other large states saw marked declines.
Just before the point-in-time count was conducted, a coalition of Tucson-based homeless advocacy groups moved to block Tucson police and city officials from park "sweeps," when officers forcibly remove people sleeping in public parks or camps in dry washes, citing concerns about possible plans before the yearly Gem and Mineral Show.
In a 19-page lawsuit filed in federal court, the Tucson Tenants Union, People’s Defense Initiative, Community on Wheels, and Community Care Tucson argued such sweeps violate the 8th Amendment because the city does not have shelter space for an estimated 3,000 people left homeless in Tucson each night.
City officials rejected that contention, saying the enforcement of camping ordinances wasn't connected to an expected influx of tourists.
TPCH said it will use the data to coordinate "street outreach and engagement" to increase shelter participation and promote services. The data may also be used to increase the number of "low-barrier" emergency shelter beds, and create diversion and housing assistance programs meant to quickly solve "housing crises without the need for longer-term housing interventions." The group said they will also seek to expand transitional and permanent housing programs, and improve coordination between government services.