Phoenix City Councilmember Michael Nowakowski is leaving office in April after 12 years, leaving behind a big issue for whoever replaces him.
No matter what the new councilmember wants to do for District 7, which includes central and south Phoenix, he or she will have to contend with “The Zone,” an area that has been a center of people experiencing homelessness for decades, and the Human Services Campus, a 13-acre facility that currently serves as the central, most visible point for addressing homelessness in the Valley.
Tension in the area has heightened in the last year as the campus has sought, amid objections from neighboring residents, to expand the number of beds it can offer to people.
Nowakowski has been a fierce opponent of the expansion, even storming a press conference where Mayor Kate Gallego voiced her support for the plan, and backing a moon-shot idea to move the campus to Phoenix’s District 8. The future of the homelessness dilemma in part depends on who wins the race to replace him.
Leading the candidates in fundraising is Yassamin Ansari, a former United Nations adviser focused on addressing climate change who has received the mayor’s endorsement. Backed by the Urban Phoenix Project, which has fought with Nowakowski in the past, Ansari promises an approach more centered around listening to service providers.
Her biggest rival financially is Cinthia Estela, a self-described business owner involved in the Laveen community who scored Nowakowski’s endorsement. Unsurprisingly, Estela’s approach is more in line with continuing business as usual.
Also running are Francisca Montoya, who works for the nonprofit Raza Development Fund and was chief of staff to District 7 councilmember Salomon Leija in the ’90s, and G. Grayson Flunoy, who does small business outreach for Valley Metro and only registered to run in July. The fifth candidate, Susan Mercado-Gudino, didn’t respond to repeated messages.
Here’s what they had to say on the issues:
The Human Services Campus and the adjacent religious nonprofit André House are seeking a change in zoning that would let them put several hundred more shelter beds in their existing spaces to accommodate the 2,300 people now living on Phoenix streets.
Neighborhood groups opposed to the zoning change have said they are already suffering with the current situation and believe this would make things worse, while service providers say that since homeless people are already there, the addition of more shelter beds would help address the impacts that neighbors are concerned about. The city council is expected to vote on the zoning application in December.
All of the District 7 candidates agree, as do service providers and neighbors, that more shelters distributed across the city and region are needed. The question is: what role does expanding the campus play in that need?
The candidates were split on this issue. Ansari and Flunoy said they support the expansion; Estela and Montoya are opposed.
Ansari said we need to follow the lead of experts — in this case “mostly service providers” — in addressing the current, “inhumane” situation. She said that she supports the zoning change as long as it’s part of expanding shelters across the city and addressing issues that cause homelessness, like a lack of affordable housing, and that neighbors get a seat at the table.
She said she liked Los Angeles’ model, in which L.A. council members each agreed to take on some new shelters in their own district, but was noncommittal about adding more shelters in Phoenix’s District 7.
“I think whatever is really fair,” she said.
Flunoy said he hadn’t had a chance to see the zoning proposal, but that expansion does seem needed.
“You don’t have an option to displace them or move them elsewhere,” he said.
Estela and Montoya said they felt there was already too much of an impact on the area surrounding the campus and it wasn’t fair for only District 7 to carry that burden.
Montoya has lived in the district for 30 years and remembers when CASS, the emergency shelter later incorporated into the Human Services Campus, opened.
“And I clearly remember it was meant to be one of many sites across the city,” she said. She worries the expanded beds will be seen as “mission accomplished,” to the detriment of other efforts.
Move Them Out?
Last month, councilmembers Nowakowski and Sal DiCiccio rolled out an idea: move the Human Services Campus approximately three miles east to the former St. Luke’s campus, make it bigger, and get the state and county to help pay for it. There are some issues with the idea, including St. Luke’s proximity to nearby communities, and it was blasted by councilmember Carlos Garcia, whose district it would go in. A neighborhood leader near the Human Services Campus also criticized it.
Estela, Nowakowski’s endorsed replacement, was the only one of the four candidates to say she supported the plan. She pointed to past plans to open multiple Human Services Campuses throughout the Valley, and wants to continue that approach.
“It shouldn’t just be on District 7,” she said.
However, moving the campus to a different district raises its own concerns. Flunoy said a member of the school board in the area near St. Luke’s, whom he’s known for years, called him unprompted to voice concerns about the idea. He said it’s not fair to drop some of the impacts of the Human Services Campus on another neighborhood that has been struggling.
Montoya and Ansari aren’t paying the plan much mind.
“I think it’s a little bit of a pipe dream at this point,” Ansari said. She has no particular thoughts about it but believes the city should focus on existing plans to address homelessness, instead. Montoya said she hadn’t seen Nowakowski and DiCiccio’s plan.