By Eugene Scott The Republic | azcentral.com Thu May 16, 2013 4:20 PM

Mayor Greg Stanton says he has made the city’s homeless problem a top priority since he took office. However, one councilman says the city needs to do much more.

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio last month hand-delivered a letter to Stanton, the City Council and City Manager David Cavazos asking them to immediately assemble a blue-ribbon panel to address Phoenix’s homeless problem.

With more than 6,000 homeless people in the Valley, according to DiCiccio, the issue is at a “chronic” level, he says.

“I want the best experts with the highest compassion to help us deal expeditiously with this saddening problem,” DiCiccio said. “While Phoenix clearly is a leader in the Valley on addressing homelessness, I believe we can be much better and move this issue to a higher priority.”

City officials and non-profit leaders, though, say the mayor and his staff have been doing what DiCiccio is requesting since Stanton’s earliest days as mayor. He took office on Jan. 3, 2012.

A priority

Stanton established the Mayor’s Advisory Group on Homelessness shortly after he took office, said Ruben Alonzo, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.

“It’s easy for politicians to try to get involved in issues in an election year, but the truth of the matter is that ever since he (Stanton) was on the City Council, this has been one of his top priorities and he has been a leader on this issue,” he said.

The 16-person advisory group includes non-profit executives and city leaders serving the city’s homeless population, including representatives from UMOM New Day Shelters, Central Arizona Shelter Services and Valley of the Sun United Way.

The committee has established best practices and is working on several initiatives, Alonzo said. He said he didn’t know if DiCiccio has been involved in these conversations.

“Maybe he hasn’t worked closely in the past with the providers and advocacy committee that has been working on chronic homelessness,” he said.

It is impossible to work with groups that aren’t doing much, DiCiccio said.

“What have they done? Saying it and doing it are two different things,” the councilman told The Republic. “I think we could do a lot more and a lot better than what we’re doing right now. I think it’s great that people are saying it’s a top priority, but when it comes to something being a top priority, you create a focus and give attention to that area. And I haven’t seen that.”

Tangible solutions

DiCiccio said he’s unaware of what has come out of the mayor’s work on the homelessness issue. “I know the Mayor’s Office has been having meetings on (homelessness) for about a year, but there hasn’t been a clear direction or focus on this issue,” DiCiccio said.

The councilman said he sent the letter to the mayor after talking about the city’s homelessness issue with former Phoenix Councilman Craig Tribken, a CASS volunteer, who is on the Mayor’s Advisory Group on Homelessness.

“Homelessness is a problem and there’s always more to do,” Tribken said. “But I think it’s too simple to say, ‘Phoenix needs to do more.’ I think the whole society needs to do more.”

Jodi Liggett, the mayor’s senior policy adviser on homelessness, is in Chicago this week at a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development boot camp learning how to better address homelessness.

And Shaun Donovan, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is visiting Phoenix this month to get an up-close look at Phoenix’s work with the homeless community. Stanton invited him, Liggett said. City officials hope to share their housing initiatives.

Among those programs is the Youth Homeless Project, a collaboration with other non-profits, which will house homeless gay and foster youths; and Veterans Bootcamp on Homelessness Initiative, which has housed nearly 150 chronically homeless veterans.

“Phoenix does more than any other entity around with the exception of the county,” Tribken said. “The mayor has made a priority out of homelessness, and certainly every advocate is an important thing.”

Funds

The city’s Human Services Department dedicates $4.4 million this year toward ending homelessness. This includes state and federal funding and grants. The city’s Housing Department provides some additional funds for homeless housing programs.

DiCiccio said Phoenix could direct more dollars toward the problem.

“Your priorities are also determined by how much attention you give that issue and how much focus in terms of revenue,” he said. “So, I think the city of Phoenix could do a lot more, and I mean a lot more.”

But the fiscal conservative said tackling the issue takes more than funds.

“It’s not just about throwing money at a problem,” DiCiccio said. “If you have a specific plan or objective, you’re able to monitor your success for six months, nine months to a year and two years from now to see if it’s working. That’s what I’d like to see.”

Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, wrote DiCiccio saying that another committee is not needed, but maximizing limited resources is. Governments and agencies have not been able to respond with the urgency they desired because Arizona is still recovering from the economic downturn, she said.

“As stimulus funds dry up, local communities have been struggling to fill the gap,” Serviss said. “Meanwhile, the state budget crisis has severely crippled the programs in the state that meet the needs of those experiencing homelessness.”

To be determined

Jay Cory became CEO of Phoenix Rescue Mission, a non-profit serving the homeless, in September 2011, but said he was only recently invited to participate in conversations with the mayor on homelessness.

He is working with the city on forming an advisory panel for faith-based groups addressing homelessness. In September, Stanton will host the first Phoenix Faith Forum on homelessness.

Cory has been in conversations with public-safety officials and social workers, but said the verdict is still out on how big of a priority addressing homelessness is for the city.

“It’s too early for me to tell, but the signs look good,” he said. “They are trying to put together some efforts and partnerships to make some things happen.”

Arizona has still not fully recovered from the housing crash, which left many without homes, Cory said. And Phoenix is a popular destination for discharged veterans, he said, who often struggle with unemployment and homelessness.

“Arizona is one of the states that experienced an actual increase over the past year, and so there is a problem here, absolutely, and it’s a growing problem,” Cory said.

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