Is Veteran homelessness in Arizona still a problem?
On Veteran’s Day, thousands of parade spectators waved flags and thanked veterans for their service, only a few blocks away from downtown, where every evening around 3 p.m., homeless veterans line up to wait for a bed in one of the Phoenix shelters.
Tim Davis, a retired marine, attends the Veteran’s Day parade every year, and says he appreciates the gratitude people express but that more should be done to help veterans throughout the year.
“I see a lot of homeless veterans, a lot of people standing alongside the freeway with signs saying they are hungry, homeless and so forth. I don’t think a veteran in the United States of America should have to endure that,” he said.
There are conflicting reports about the actual number of homeless veterans in Arizona. According to the city of Phoenix website, Phoenix achieved a “functional zero” number for chronic homeless veterans two years ago. But there are still homeless veterans in Phoenix, and some, by their own account, have been on the streets for over a year.
Andriana Francini is the community relations and development coordinator for the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, an organization that offers training and support to local non-profits and businesses that are working to end homelessness.
Francini says that the total number of homeless people in Arizona fluctuates depending on the season and the year, but as of January 2016, the number was 9,896. Roughly 70 percent of those people are concentrated in Maricopa County.
The numbers specific to homeless veterans are a little bit harder to find. Francini estimates the number to be around 150, but acknowledges that the numbers are contested, and she has seen estimates that are much higher.
“It depends if you count someone who was sleeping in a shelter at the time or using a veteran resource at the time,” she said.
Francini also clarified that “functional zero” refers only to chronic veteran homelessness, and was actually achieved two years ago.
“Functional zero means we have the capacity to help if someone does become homeless. We can’t force someone to take resources if they don’t want them,” she said.
Francini explained that homelessness by state is graded by tiers in terms of which will be dealt with first, in order of priority. The tiers are chronic veteran homelessness, all veteran homelessness, chronically homeless individuals, and finally, all homeless individuals.
In order to be considered chronically homeless, a person must be on the street for more than one year at a time or must have been homeless three times over the span of four years.
The functional zero number also accounts for veterans who will become chronically homeless in the future, according to Francini.
“We have the space and capacity for that person to get help and get housed,” she said.
As far as why there are so many homeless people to begin with, Francini says that addiction does play a part, as do mental health problems, but that another big factor is lack of affordable housing.
There are many local organizations working to provide help and resources to the veteran community. One of them is Justa Center, a day resource that provides housing placement, employment counseling, meals and basic medical care for homeless seniors over the age of 55.
Barbara Lewkowitz, the executive director of Justa Center, said that depending on the season, veterans generally make up a large portion of their homeless clients, as they are called at Justa Center, roughly 30-50 percent.
Veterans become homeless for many reasons, including lack of a support system, substance abuse, mental illness or PTSD, or just having trouble adjusting back to the civilian world. It also makes a difference whether or not the public has been respectful and grateful for their service, according to Lewkowitz.
“Veterans of different wars and different experiences have different reactions from the general public on their participation, maybe a Vietnam war vet might not become the same reaction that a World War II vet would get,” she said.
Lewkowitz, who has lived in Phoenix her whole life, is proud of the work the Justa Center has been able to do, citing a 93 percent retention rate among people they place in housing, in part because Justa Center continues to check in after people are placed.
Still, she acknowledges there is much more work to do, both locally, and at a national level.
“They say there are 40,000 homeless veterans every single night in the US,” she said.
Lewkowitz also laments the racial disparity among homeless veterans, describing African American and Hispanic veterans as making up roughly 10 percent and 4 percent respectively of the overall armed forces, but more than 40 percent of the population of homeless veterans.
Higher levels of homelessness among minority veterans, particularly African Americans, were confirmed in a 2016 National Coalition for Homeless Veterans annual conference report.
Robert Harris, 61, is currently homeless and a client of Justa Center. He is former Air Force and says as he got older it became harder to get a job. When he got laid off from his last job, he wasn’t able to find anything else.
He isn’t old enough to retire, so he isn’t eligible to collect benefits until his birthday in May. Still, Harris isn’t giving up and continues to look for work.
“It’s difficult but since I’ve been in the military I know you just have to keep going, you can’t stop. You have to continue on,” he said.
Harris says he isn’t expecting anything for free, but wants people to know that just because he is homeless doesn’t mean he isn’t a good person.
“Be courteous, it can happen to you too. You could lose a job and you won’t be able to find one for awhile and you could be homeless just as easy as anybody else,” he said.
Robert Robinson, an Army veteran who has been homeless for almost a year, agrees.
“If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you are about one paycheck away from being here,” he said.
Robinson, 59, has had trouble finding a job since a head injury prevented him from working. He spends most nights at a shelter run by Saint Vincent’s in Phoenix, and is very grateful for the help he receives from local organizations, without whom he would be “hungry and homeless.”
Though there is still work to be done, the efforts of Justa Center and other local organizations are paying off.
Between 2015 and 2016, there was a 17 percent decline in veteran homelessness in Arizona, according to Francini.
Phoenix Artist Profile: Bassim Al-Shaker
Bassim Al-Shaker spends most of his day quietly painting in a mural-covered garage studio on Fifth Street. He is well known and well liked by the people in his neighborhood. He attends local events like First Friday, and teaches art classes at two local colleges.
But, despite his familiarity with downtown Phoenix, this is not his home.
Al-Shaker left Baghdad, Iraq three years ago to escape persecution by local militants because of his art. They saw Al-Shaker’s sketches of the Venus di Milo, and believed his drawings were inappropriate, so they decided to teach him a lesson, according to Gordon Knox, who led the effort to bring Al-Shaker to Arizona.
Knox, who is the director of ASU’s art museum, described what happened to Al-Shaker next as “days of imprisonment and torture.”
Al-Shaker’s attackers were turned in to the police, and spent several years in prison, in part because of what they had done to him.
When Knox met Al-Shaker for the first time, he was showing his work in Venice, Italy as part of an exhibit of Iraqi artists, and his attackers had just gotten out of jail. According to Knox, they blamed Al-Shaker for their incarceration and wanted revenge.
“His life was really at risk. I wanted to bring him here because of his talent, but now I had a real timeline, the sooner the better,” said Knox.
Al-Shaker was able to get a tourist visa and came to Arizona as part of an artist residency program at ASU that allows international artists to live and work in Phoenix.
His family is still in Iraq, a place Al-Shaker says he can never return to.
“I can’t go back. I can’t. I wish but I can’t,” he said.
Al-Shaker had a hard time adjusting at first, particularly because of the language barrier, but after being in Arizona for over three years, and obtaining a green card, the only thing missing for him is his family.
He is working with a lawyer to try to bring them over, but it is a slow process, even though they face danger from the same people who attacked Al-Shaker.
“They are thinking if they treat the parents badly enough he will come back to free them. It’s a scary, tricky situation. It’s a huge stress on him now,” said Knox.
Although he is far away from his home, Al-Shaker says his heritage and reading about what is happening in his homeland always inspires him with new ideas for artwork.
“The news, when we read now about Syria and Iraq, they make you have so many ideas about what’s going on, how will you make something, how will you change, how will you try to help?” he said.
Al-Shaker opened Babylon Gallery on Roosevelt Row in July to display his work. He chose to open his gallery there because he “first breathed the air in America two blocks away.”
He had tried living in other parts of the Phoenix valley, but said he came back because being on Roosevelt Row made him feel like he was back at home.
Greg Esser, an artist and the executive director of Roosevelt Row, was also part of the group that helped bring Al-Shaker to Arizona. He credits the warmth and friendliness of Phoenix residents for accepting new people into the community.
“I think an openness is one of the things that really sets our community specifically apart. We see an incredibly diverse community evolving in this area and that, to me, is tremendously important,” said Esser.
Knox sees Al-Shaker’s success in Arizona as a broader example of what can happen when a city accepts refugees and allows them to recreate their lives and find peace and stability as part of the community.
“Many people don’t think of Arizona and tolerance in the same breath all the time, but in Phoenix it’s true and it’s part of the reason this city is so vibrant,” said Knox.
Al-Shaker is experimenting with new styles of art, inspired by the city of Phoenix, which he now calls his second home. He has many dreams for the future, but he says his biggest one is to truly be an artist, and quotes Pablo Picasso:
“He said when you meet so many people and you tell them what you do and you tell them I’m an artist, how? I make art, yes. But I’m an artist? It’s a very big word. And for me, I wish I would be an artist,” said Al-Shaker.