Scottsdale officials grilled over homeless-to-hotel program

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State Representatives Quang Nguyen(far left) and Matt Gress (center left) question Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega at a community meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Cameron Arcand | The Center Square contributor

(The Center Square) –By Cameron Arcand

Emotions ran high at a community meeting in Scottsdale discussing the city’s placement of homeless people in local hotel rooms.

Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, led a packed community hearing in Scottsdale on Wednesday to hear from experts and gather public comments in his capacity as chairman of the state House Appropriations Subcommittee on Budgetary Funding Formulas. The hearing featured Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega, Gospel Rescue Mission in Tucson CEO Lisa Chastain, Cicero Institute Senior Advisor Jared Meyer, and San Fransico-based journalist Erica Sandberg in addition to community comments.

Gress raised concern in early August about a Scottsdale hotel having some rooms used by the Arizona Department of Housing to shelter what the city describes as migrants and others from the “Zone” — a large homeless encampment in downtown Phoenix that is slowly being cleared.

ADOH eventually said they would make sure funds from the contract between the state and Scottsdale would not be used on former Zone residents and illegal immigrants. 

“While we stand by the validity of the Contract, we have confirmed with the City that the shelter beds and services provided pursuant to the Contract have not and will not serve those individuals impacted by the Zone and Title 42,” Department of Housing Director Joan Serviss wrote on Aug. 18, The Center Square reported.

Scottsdale received a $940,000 grant to support their ongoing program this summer, part of it being the controversial hotel placements. 

Gress emphasized that resident safety comes first at the hearing on Wednesday.

“Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s also a public safety crisis,” Gress said, repeatedly referencing California’s homeless crisis.

“Treatment first is the way forward,” he added, criticizing “housing first” as not solving the root cause of addiction many homeless people face.

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said that housing first is a better approach and pointed out affordable housing in her opening statement as a root cause of homelessness in the area.

“No one with a full-time job should have to live in their car or on the street,” Schwiebert said.

She said it is “fiscally irresponsible” to place homeless individuals in jails or other public spaces instead of using housing-first programs involving locations like hotels.

“We need to work together, not politicize this,” Schwiebert added.

Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega defended the city’s homelessness strategies.

“Scottsdale has been very successful…in a very deliberate manner before this funding came. We have never taken Title 42 clients, and we have not taken ‘Zone’ clients,” he said, saying that people benefitting from Scottsdale’s homelessness programs are “double-vetted.”

“But those 10 rooms are being used tonight and keeping people off the streets, and they’re looking for meaningful employment,” Ortega said.

The city might not have housed illegal foreign nationals, but federal authorities informed them in 2021 of a contract with the owners of a shuttered hotel on Scottsdale Rd. to hold migrants with the capability to house 1,200 people. The contract drew the ire of local and state officials in addition to protests outside the property.

“We are flooded by them, and we want to take care of our own,” Ortega said Wednesday, frequently repeating the sentiment that the city is busy taking care of Scottsdale residents rather than Title 42 and “Zone” individuals.

Ngyuen questioned Ortega about how the city defined success, as there was a floating 84% success rate statistic with their program with unclear criteria.

“The question is how do you track these people,” Nguyen said at one point. Ortega could not explain how the city concludes a case as successful.

Sandberg offered some insight from California, which has poured billions of dollars into housing and caring for the state’s massive homeless population.

“I feel like I’m a ghost from Christmas future,” Sandberg said in her opening statement as a witness. 

Chastain encouraged the importance of nonprofits like hers.

“Simply pouring more money into the current system is not working,” she said.

Republished with the permission of The Center Square.