COTTONWOOD - "Because of our current economy, we have a whole new population who are experiencing homelessness for the first time."
That, says Karia Basta, has raised awareness of the homeless problem in communities all around the state. The demonstrative administrator of Special Needs for the Arizona Department of Housing spoke at the quarterly meeting of the Verde Valley Homeless Coalition on Wednesday.
Basta told the Cottonwood gathering that research has exposed a lot of myths about homeless people. Think they want to be homeless and that they are mainly transients? Throw those ideas out.
"People wind up homeless in their home areas," Basta said. "The homeless are your neighbors."
She was preaching to a choir, so to speak, of several concerned organizations ranging from Catholic Charities Community Services (organizers of the coalition) to Cornucopia to Chapter 5 to elected officials and even a Cottonwood police officer. The crowd of 40 was larger than normal for the topic of homelessness, but the December meeting indicated the growing interest and necessitated the move to the larger Verde Valley Guidance Clinic.
Basta noted that rural areas like the Verde Valley have many nonprofit organizations stepping in to help people who are without shelter. "But just the nonprofits together can't do it," she said.
There are up to 150 homeless people in the Verde Valley, by the most recent approximations. AHD does a street count every other year and a shelter count every year in an attempt to gauge the situation. Basta said the new numbers should be out soon. That count involves not just a head count of the usual homeless hangouts but also engaging the individuals in conversation to find out their real situation.
A lot of factors lead to people becoming homeless in a rural area. Basta said it has taken awhile for the federal Housing & Urban Development to realize that "Rural America is not the same as the urban areas" when it comes to the homeless problem. "Things don't work that way in small towns."
Basta was on hand to explain the state's "Continuum of Care" and talked about HEARTH, the 2009 reenactment of the Homeless Assistance programs, which has taken three years to go into effect.
With that comes HUD's new definition of "homeless" as literally homeless, at imminent risk of homelessness, homeless under other federal statutes and fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.
"Obviously, people don't become homeless overnight," she said. "A lot of things contributed to it, and they won't get out of it overnight."
But the linear idea of moving homeless people from the streets to a shelter to a transitional home to a permanent home is becoming passé.
Basta said people actually do better at working out other issues like psychological disorders or drug abuse when they first have a permanent residence.
The main problem everywhere is affordable housing.
"There was not enough affordable housing before the housing crisis," she said.
Among other speakers at the meeting, Troll Worfolk presented his concept of a "Verde Valley Cold Weather Homeless Shelter Project" based on a program that has been successful in Simi Valley, Calif., serving single homeless people.
As proposed, it would utilize existing services like the Old Town Mission and the Loft.
He will host an organizational meeting on March 24 at 9 a.m. at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Clarkdale. Worfolk can be contacted at (928) 634-8016 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Worden, director of Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens' homelessness project, For Our City, gave an update on that project as well.
It is intended to bring together organizations and businesses in a non-religious setting to provide services for the youth, the elderly and the homeless.
For more information about the Verde Valley Homeless Coalition, call Marilyn Williams at Catholic Charities Community Services, (928) 634-4254, ext. 54118.
The coalition next meets on June 6.