Extending access to desktop social services through community-based support
Eric "Half" Brickley, Feed Phoenix
According to the most recent Point-in-Time Count data published by Maricopa County, approximately 7000 people currently live unhoused in Phoenix, AZ and 553 unsheltered people died in 2021 valley wide. We have seen the number of people attending our thrice weekly community support events continue to swell in 2022. We expect to learn that the published number of people living unhoused and the number of people who perished on the street will grow again, as it has for the last 7 years. Furthermore, the numbers of individuals living and dying on the streets has and continues to rise parabolically in the last 4 years. The data shows we are clearly in a deepening crisis and it appears to be accelerating.
In 2021 the city of PHX cut funding to the housing budget and currently there are shelter beds available for less than ¼ of the unhoused population, leaving roughly 5400 people living and attempting to sleep outdoors in the valley, every night. This is all in the face of raising the police budget by approximately $100M in the last 2 years. With the local rulers unwilling to make the changes necessary to support its population, they continue to let people languish in the dangerous heat of our poorly shaded Urban Island. There is nowhere for a person to legally exist while unsheltered in the valley. Many people are forced to live on the pavement in close proximity to the primary hub of valley social services located in DTPHX called The Human Services Campus (HSC). This large concentration of people creates many problems and cannot be healthily managed by the community it inhabits.
What are the most needed services for individuals living unsheltered, and where can they be most effectively delivered to decrease mortality risk for the unsheltered population?
Does the philosophy and practice of mutual-aid increase engagement with unsheltered individuals and satisfaction with services offered as compared to current “homeless outreach”programs?
Can FP, through integrated community action and the sharing of our findings, directly influence the policy and funding surrounding shelter available?
Methods and findings
All of our work at Feed Phoenix is rooted in meeting people where they are. Feed Phoenix is an abolitionist, all-volunteer, horizontally aligned organization. We start by asking people what they need while attempting to minimize our bias and judgment. We continue to learn about, and practice, harm reduction and supporting people with a focus on the Social Determinants of Health. We have learned much about the culture and associated trauma that comes from living Unsheltered. We learned to build community with people that are often distrusted or dismissed. This shared trust enabled us to learn of new, often hidden, encampments and to better understand both the collective and individual needs of the people we were meeting.
We host three weekly community support events around Phoenix, and focus specifically on sharing community supplied resources with people that choose to attend. We try to greatly minimize barriers to access and do not require ID or any records for attendance at any of these community events. Also, we arrive to these events, as physical outsiders, with a plan. However, we acknowledge and respect intimate communities' ability to self organize for their own benefit and attempt to work within the framework that is sometimes unspoken but clearly socially valuable. This enables a genuine reciprocal trust within our larger shared community, and specifically between the people in Feed PHX and new neighbors we meet. Furthermore, several members of our organization are currently unsheltered or have been previously. These principals are paramount for our ability to bridge the gap created by distrust in traditional government services and the resources they control. We are reminded often by members of the unsheltered community of their dissatisfaction with current outreach programs. In anchoring our engagement to the sharing of community provided resources and non carceral solutions to conflict, we were able to greatly increase the rate at which we were meeting people living unsheltered. When we started with this method, we were engaging 25 - 30 people at an event, and now we engage 150 - 250 people every event and approximately 700 people a week. While it’s obvious that an increasing population of unsheltered individuals would generally increase engagement, the growth we have seen is clearly greater than the increase of said population.
There have been many people working to change the status quo and emphasize the failure of the municipalities in the valley, and there have been some positive results. We are seeing our PHX city rulers start to invest in fully supportive housing services and they are finally recognizing that we are in a severe crisis, though their statements and commitment to funding do not state any clear goals in housing or even attempt to shelter every individual. The large encampment outside of the HSC is gaining significantly more attention and invested community energy. We have gained access to the Homeless Management Information Services (HMIS) which enables us to make direct referrals for services outside of traditional resident requests. The base of community support is growing at a commensurate rate to our engagement. Our larger community is organizing against the constant attempts to criminalize people living unsheltered. A growing number of activated community members have been able to bring significant pressure and were able to halt the recent AZ House Bill aimed at using the police to arrest away the unsheltered population and the House Bill attempting to limit the public recording of police.
Feed Phoenix enables the community contact
Sidewalk Project PHX and Shot in The Dark share harm reduction products
Go With the Flow provides period hygiene products
Sonoran Prevention Works offers HIV & Hep-C testing
Desert Star Family Planning for general community access to low/no cost IUDs registration
Burners without Borders connected us with solar power
Human Services Campus and Solari for access to HMIS
Community members volunteering for several hundred hours of in–person support and flexible response to resource distribution
This project, alongside the larger community effort, is connecting people to services and resources that would otherwise be inaccessible to many who cannot advocate digitally, for many reasons, or are not able to be part of the conversation when our rulers are distributing our publicly controlled resources. We are learning and teaching each other, as a community, how to acquire and share resources. We are learning how to solve conflict without relying on the State to intervene. We are collectively building systems of support that are freely shared within our growing community.
Overall, I have learned that the coordination of people and services, even those freely offered, is not easy. Our timeline for this project changed dramatically as the bureaucracy that surrounded getting access to government programs, regardless of who is administering them, is lethargic. However, following the community led approach we have created something that can remain versatile and useful for the foreseeable future, well beyond the project end date.
Feed PHX has images, facts, and the policy brief that grew from this work to further share about this subject, and our efforts. However, instead of just encouraging you to learn more, I am encouraging you to get active. If you want to know more, if you want to meet and understand people where they live, if you want to get involved directly and intimately building systems of support, than I hope you join us at one of many events sharing what our community offers, or even join us for a day in the mobile office connecting people to the resources available through our collective efforts.
Eric "Half" Brickley
Community Fellow, 2022
Artist. Network and Electronic Technician. NAU Physics Graduate. Bartender. 2 Tour Army Infantry Sergeant. Born in DTPHX.
I am motivated to change the environment affecting general social welfare. I am a wellspring of energy for equity. I am a lifelong student and have a deep love for the natural world.