Tyler Hudgins, MFNN Arizona State Director

The state of Arizona has been leading the nation with the highest increases in home prices. This has been very beneficial for homeowners that already owned homes. We have seen an influx of new residents from California, Illinois and New York. Many of those moving to Arizona, especially those from California, are purchasing their homes in cash. This has made the market extremely competitive and difficult for first-time home buyers to get into a home. It has not been uncommon for those buying to be competing against 90 to 120 other offers that are way over asking price. There are many other populations being impacted negatively and as a result Arizona has entered an affordable housing crisis.

We have been doing a tour of many of the different non-profit organizations throughout the state. A pastor we know that has heard about what we have seen quipped in a friendly way, “you guys are on a misery tour.” And he was right, we were seeing the worst of public life. The problem for all of us though is it’s easy to avoid these troubled areas and pretend “those people” do not exist. Many of us can live and not realize the pain of the least, the last, and the lost in our communities.

While many are offering tens of thousands of dollars over asking price — there are many who cannot afford a place to lay their heads. Every non-profit we visited on the “misery tour” had a commonality in the lack and need for more affordable housing.

Arizona Multi-Faith Neighbors Network hosted an event on the topic of “Homelessness: Moving from Problem to Opportunity.” We hosted the Mayors of Chandler, Mesa and Gilbert for a forum in the Eastern Phoenix Metro area. Additionally, we had several non-profits and city staff.

One of the non-profit leaders was a man who was homeless just four years ago. You could hear a pin drop in the room as this man shared his story. We heard how God saved his life at the very moment all seemed lost and how he is now running two of his own non-profit organizations helping others out of homelessness. In the moment of tension in hearing his story, there was a misconception being suddenly evaporated in the minds of those in attendance: that there is just no hope for those living on the streets.

Yet here was a man defying the assumed odds and now helping others.

Mesa Mayor John Giles stated that for him, “homelessness is not an issue in the City of Mesa, but it is the issue.” He was not just saying this either. We learned on our tour that he has taken significant political risk by placing all his political capital on three main issues: homelessness, affordable housing, and hunger.

Why are these issues political? Why does addressing them risk your political future?

Many have preconceived notions on what the issues mean and do not want anything that infringes on their slice of heaven in the city — “not in my backyard.”

Mayor Giles had finally reached the end of hearing the trauma that these issues created for the city, so he gathered some of his staff in a room together. He told them not to leave the room until they figured out a solution. They created a whole process of moving those who wanted help through a hotel stay with wrap around services, work force training, then moving them into transitional housing, then into affordable housing, and ultimately re-launching them back into the community.

The first step they came up with was securing hotel rooms and offering people the opportunity to stay there temporarily and receive assistance. They called many of the hotels in the city offering to rent out 85 rooms on an ongoing basis but over 95% of the hotels declined the moment they heard those occupying them would be homeless despite an officer being on site 24/7 — just one hotel was willing to participate in the program.

So far, they have moved between 400 and 500 hundred people through the program in the willing hotel. Of that amount, 83% have exited the program positively and of those not a single person is back on the streets. The police officer running the program told us that instead of officers fining or arresting the homeless and continuing the perpetual cycle; they would offer them help and transport those individuals to the hotel. The police officer shared that the only reason they have been able to do what they have done is because of the political will of the mayor to allow them to experiment. This was powerful for us to see an entrepreneurial effort by a government entity that typically lacks that level of flexibility.

The police officer shared that they started with only one individual in the category of over the age of 65, but as the prices of homes began skyrocketing, they now have 44 individuals between the ages of 65 and 90 years old — 10 of them being aged 80 to 90 years old. The most vulnerable population in the affordable housing crisis are our seniors and they are being pushed out on the streets. Another organization we visited has started experimenting with a senior matching program where they match a senior that owns a home with another senior that needs a place to rent. This solution is good because it provides community and affordability.

At the end of talking with the police officer, a man of faith himself, stated something very powerful. He said, “these issues will not be fully resolved until the faith community is tired of letting these people live like animals on the streets.”

We also visited the Arizona Department of Children’s Services (DCS) in Phoenix. It was a government office building that children would be brought to for various reasons, many times in the early hours of the morning. The children being brought there literally have no next of kin to take them in and truly are alone in this world. We walked through seeing all the empty beds in offices with the few items they brought with them — each representing one of these children. We saw one girl passed out on a bed in the middle of a cubicle that looked like she has gone through a lot.

As we proceeded through the building, we heard one clergy member whisper to another, “if the faith community wanted to end this issue tomorrow — it could.”

This was a true and powerful statement.

Here are ways we identified that the faith community can help:

1.     Many congregations own land that is not utilized. Turn this land into affordable housing. Faith communities are given a tax-exempt status, but are we all doing enough to earn that tax exemption? It’s a win-win. It helps the most vulnerable, it helps your local government leaders, it provides a small income stream to your congregation, and gives your people proximity to the most vulnerable. Even if you can only place a single affordable house on your property — “do for one what you wish you could do for all.”

2.     Reach out to your own children’s services agency to see how families in your congregation could consider taking these kids in as their own. There is also an 18 to 21 year old population aging out of the system that want a fresh start in life. How could your youth ministries give them a family of friends that provide belonging? How could your community help them take the first step?

3.     Ask local elected officials how your congregation can be praying for them and the city. If the faith community wants to be good news to our elected officials — it looks like leaning into these issues through prayer and action. Many states all over the nation are experiencing the same thing we have been here in Arizona.

4.     Take your own “misery tour” and become well acquainted with the plights of the least, the last, and the lost of your community.

5.     Avoid purely transactional service opportunities that are missing the opportunity for members of your congregation to experience people in these issues in a relational way. The goal should not only be to serve those in need, but to shape the hearts of your people through proximity.