There are no silver bullets to solve the homelessness crisis

Volunteers with the Aris Foundation give out donated clothes on a Tuesday evening in Tempe to those who are experiencing homelessness. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Monika Perry’s life has been full of struggle, strife and hope. 

She joined the United States Air Force in 1999, as soon as she was able, and her time in the service took her to places like Greenland and Saudi Arabia. But her greatest struggle wasn’t one that occurred on any battlefield but on the streets of Tempe. 

In 2016, she began a battle with substance use disorder while in a violent relationship with her then-husband. She would go in and out of treatment for the next four years and ultimately would find herself in Arizona in 2020, homeless and desperate for help — and being manipulated by a new partner. It’s a pattern women who’ve been abused often get stuck in. 

For the next three years, Perry struggled to find help, often being turned away by service providers. She was robbed at gunpoint while living on the street and harassed by police. 

Perry was desperate for help and could not seem to find it, until she met a man who understood her trauma. 



Benjamin Jeffrey, a veteran himself, struggled with addiction for years, eventually leading to his own homelessness. Jeffery turned his life around, got off the streets and began helping the community he spent so much time with in the Salt River bottom near Tempe. 

Perry found Jeffrey when he was doing outreach work on the street and told him how she had been turned down for help, despite her veteran status, and she then slowly started the journey to recovery. 

Her story of experiencing homelessness for years despite pleas for help is all too common to those who have made their life’s work to help the most needy among them. 

And there are no simple solutions. 

A common story 

Arizona has seen a year-over-year increase in its unhoused population since 2017. The number of people experiencing homelessness in the state is at levels the state has not seen since the late 2000s, when the country was grappling with the Great Recession. 

In the years since 2017, the state, local municipalities and counties have used different tactics to address homelessness, with varying degrees of success. Homelessness in Arizona increased by 21% from 2020 to 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The increase has led the federal government to give additional aid to Phoenix.

Prior to her experiences with homelessness, Perry was a decorated member of the USAF. She earned the nickname “Quickdraw” from colleagues who appreciated her quick reaction skills. 

Perry said she joined the military because she saw it as a way to not repeat mistakes made by her parents, an opportunity to be “different” and find her own path. At first she excelled, rising through the ranks and marrying a man who was in the Air Force, as well. But her success would also become part of her downfall. 

Her husband, she said, grew jealous of her career success, straining their relationship and marriage. He became violent and belligerent, and the resulting stress pushed her to substances. Then Perry was sexually assaulted while serving, an experience that more than 50% of women in the armed forces have also experienced. 

She faced misogyny from her fellow airmen and, after 14 years of service, she retired, annulled her marriage and decided to try to start fresh. 

But her boyfriend would eventually lead her further into drug and alcohol abuse — and to Arizona, where she hoped to get more help to deal with her PTSD and family trauma, only to find herself facing more domestic violence and trauma at the hands of her boyfriend. 

Perry eventually found herself in Tempe at a time when the city was starting to push homeless encampments out of the river bottom due to public pressure and safety concerns. While some have criticized the move by Tempe, others have noted the increase in services the city has provided in the wake of this decision. 

Those services, though, are not always as easy to get, something Perry learned firsthand. 

On a Tuesday in Tempe, an Aris Foundation volunteer watches over a table of donated clothes that will be handed out over the course of the night. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

She attempted to get services from the city, but encountered workers who dismissed her stories or told her to do things she was uncomfortable with. Eventually, Perry wound up in a temporary shelter run by a group of churches in the area. But after learning that many of the women were being sexually harassed by workers, she was haunted by the memory of her sexual assault and left. 

Back on the streets, Perry dealt with police who would tell her and her then-partner that they were trespassing, threatening her with arrest or a ticket while she tried to use the medical training she received in the USAF to help others experiencing homelessness. 

“I’m an empath, I’m a healer. It is what I was born to do,” Perry said while recalling her time living at Phoenix’s “The Zone” homeless encampment. Although she was a resident, she also tried to provide aid to other residents. “You have no idea how many people have cancer who are out there.” 

She’d try to use her veteran status and go to the VA hospital in Phoenix, but the hospital trespassed her for being homeless. She feared that, if she went back to seek services she’s entitled to, she’d be arrested. 

Perry’s story is much like many others who spoke to the Arizona Mirror, sharing their experiences with homelessness. Systems created to help are overburdened, underfunded or the people working them are not trained adequately, according to Jeffrey, Perry and others. 

“They’re basically operating with a method to drive homeless people out of the city,” Ron Tapscott, a long-time Tempe resident and activist, told the Mirror. “The only way this is going to be taken on is with substantial public pressure.”

Those who are on the ground are starting to sound the alarm, as well, saying that cities are not adequately addressing the issue — or, worse, outright ignoring parts of it. 

“The amount of shelter, just as in Phoenix, is nowhere sufficient to meet the needs of the raw number of people who are on the streets in the City of Tempe,” said Elizabeth Venable, founder and community organizer of the Fund for Empowerment. 

Providing help 

Every Tuesday night a group of volunteers sets out food, clothing and much more in a parking lot in Tempe. 

Katherine Kouvelas-Edick is the reason the weekly event happens. Seven years ago, she started going out on her lunch break with a minivan full of clothes and food to try to find and help people experiencing homelessness. Her mother encouraged her to just find one spot to set up at, and the Tuesday night ritual was born. 

Now, she and her volunteers help serve from 175 to 250 people each week, providing them with food, clothes, medical supplies and services. Her group even helps those who may not be homeless but are food insecure, like a 90-year-old WWII veteran who Kouvelas-Edick makes sure to greet every Tuesday. 

In fact, Kouvelas-Edick greets everyone. 

She said she tries to make it a “judgment free zone” so those who come can hopefully feel comfortable enough to begin the long road to permanent housing and recovery. Many of the volunteers have experienced homelessness, and some had even come to the Tuesday night giveaways for food and help themselves. 

In her time providing meals, books and clothes, Kouvelas-Edick has seen it all. She said she recognizes that real solutions seem hard to come by, even for cities that she feels are trying, like Tempe. She recalls how some of the homeless youth she encounters call the city’s homeless outreach team, the HOPE Team, the “Nope Team” instead. 

“We needed to build more capacity internally,” Tempe Mayor Corey Woods told the Mirror when asked about concerns raised by advocates of the HOPE Team being understaffed. “It is an issue in, frankly, any department in the city.” 

Volunteers with the Aris Foundation hand out food on a Tuesday evening in Tempe to those who are experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Woods touted the investments the city is making in affordable housing and trying to find new ways to create it. Woods said that the city is trying to be “proactive instead of reactive” to the causes and effects of homelessness in Tempe. 

He also defended a controversial move by the city to disallow groups like Kouvelas-Edick’s from providing their services in city parks. 

“In no shape or form am I trying to begrudge the work they do and the community they built,” Woods said, adding that the size of the events means that they should seek a permit for use in the park. 

Not long after the Mirror interviewed Woods, the city denied a permit to a group seeking to provide services to the homeless in one of the city’s parks. The city had asked the group, AZ Hugs for the Homeless, to apply for a permit for the weekly Sunday event they have been putting on for years. 

But because they kept doing the pop-up events while waiting for that permit, the city rejected the application. And that means the group will be unable to apply for a permit again for a year. 

But providing pop-up services is not the only solution and advocates are facing a legislature that is becoming increasingly hostile towards the homeless population. 

Finding solutions, maybe 

Republican lawmakers have been pushing a number of bills that aim to criminalize being homeless in Arizona, from bans on panhandling at intersections to punishing cities for not clearing out homeless encampments. 

But advocates for those experiencing homelessness don’t see one clear solution. There is no silver bullet, they say. 

Some cities have begun moving towards a policy of prioritizing housing. Both Phoenix and Tempe have gone in this direction, trying to find people permanent supportive housing with wrap-around services to help them get back on their feet. 

A study by the conservative leaning think-tank Common Sense Institute Arizona found that spending on homelessness in the Grand Canyon State tops $1 billion per year. The group looked at government and non-profit spending and found that Arizona has around 51,000 employees whose job, in some way, shape or form, revolves around homelessness. 

The lion’s share of the spending goes towards housing and shelter, followed by food and clothing, then health care. Domestic violence and veteran support and substance abuse treatment make up about $36 million in annual spending by nonprofit groups compared to the $318.38 million that goes towards housing and shelter, the report found. 

But despite that spending, advocates on the ground have said that there are still not enough beds or affordable housing to go around — and those that build affordable housing projects have trouble finding funding. 

“The prices of land have been crazy,” said Sally Schwenn, Arizona market president for Gorman & Company, an affordable housing developer. Schwenn added that one of the biggest hurdles is obtaining financing to start a project and then making sure investors understand the long process that may unfold. 

Katherine Kouvelas-Edick, founder of the Aris Foundation, gives an interview to a local news station about her work to help those experiencing homelessness. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Lawmakers have attempted to try to reduce those roadblocks by trying to streamline the permitting process. But cities object to them, and some critics fear the changes will give developers carte blanche on what they develop. 

“In all the cities, that is a big topic,” Schwenn said of the permitting process. “Some [cities] are much more positive on getting something through.” 

Advocates like Venable and Jeffery both believe that moving to a housing-first approach will help alleviate and address the rise of homelessness, but both expressed concerns as cities take efforts to eliminate encampments and the rising costs of rent. 

“Phoenix is seeing a lot of chickens coming home to roost with the State of Arizona not having rent control and not having any real spendings on the [Housing Trust Fund],” Venable said, adding that Phoenix and other cities should back the idea of rent control. “It is to their benefit to be able to have some sort of control over development, some sort of control over how inequity plays out in society.” 

Housing advocates have argued that rent control is key to grappling with the state’s growing rental prices, and Democratic lawmakers are continuing to push for the repeal of the state’s law barring rental caps

But rent control, housing and increasing affordability are just some solutions that not everyone can even agree on. 

“Just handing out housing doesn’t do it for me,” Kouvelas-Edick of the Aris Foundation said. 

To her, immediate housing should focus on the most vulnerable parts of the population, such as seniors or those with disabilities. She recalled many of the people she has met who are “service resistant” and how, in some cases, it takes “hitting rock bottom” to find the strength to change their situation. 

She also noted that those with drug or other convictions often cannot find housing that will let them in, leading to them becoming homeless. And many can’t afford the application fees many apartments and housing projects require. Those same people often do not qualify for certain aid programs. 

When Tempe cleared a homeless encampment from the river bottom, the Mirror was told that many of them were offered housing but had to move right then, bring only one bag, be entirely sober and they were not allowed to bring pets, among and other stipulations. This led to an influx at shelters in other parts of the Valley by those who either distrusted Tempe, were not ready or able to get services. 

Woods, the mayor, said that clearing the river bottom was in large part about safety, noting that the area flooded just two weeks later. 

“It was very difficult for our first responders to deal with the escalating number of calls coming from that area,” he said, adding that firefighters did not have a nearby source of water and fires were a major concern. 

Woods also denies that Tempe went to the encampment and said “you have to leave now.” 

A happier ending 

After Perry met Jeffrey, she was able to enter a program specifically designed for veterans

Perry is working on herself and has found support not only in the form of the people who provided her services but also from a new service dog, Memphis. She’s gotten sober and graduated from the program, which helped her understand herself and find stability. 

She has an apartment now and helps out other veterans like herself, in the same way Jeffery has done, at the program she graduated from. 

However, the encampment sweeps by police continue and those who help the homeless are starting to turn to the legal system to try to get some help and reprieve for what they’ve been seeing for years. 

Advocates are cautiously optimistic about the future, as Gov. Katie Hobbs has signaled that the issue is one of her top priorities. The state last year made historic investments into the state’s Housing Trust Fund, with increased disbursements to localities and nonprofits to address the growing concern. 

“You’re not wasting your time,” Perry said when asked what message she wants those on the frontlines to hear. However she acknowledged that, “after a while you start to believe it.”

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