Winter residents pack Arizona’s resorts and RV parks this time of year, but some arrive with nowhere to stay. Homeless people seeking a kinder climate for outside sleeping or a permanent change of scenery often come to the East Valley after the desert heat disappears, local social service operators said.
"We’re getting calls from all over, from people wanting to reserve beds," said Margie Frost, director of the East Valley Men’s Center. "We get a lot of people coming from back East, Florida, Maryland and Chicago."
The center, on Country Club Drive in Mesa, provides about 80 homeless men with beds and transitional services to help them get off the street. But Frost said there isn’t enough room at the center or other places in the East Valley for homeless winter residents.
"We actually discourage them from coming to the East Valley because there aren’t enough beds to go around," Frost said. "We tell them to please stay where they are and not come to Mesa or the East Valley without making plans on where to live."
Even organizations that don’t offer beds are overwhelmed by need during the winter. In Scottsdale, Shoebox Ministry collects personal hygiene supplies and distributes them to agencies that serve the homeless. Program director Laura Borgeson said she knows to ask for extra donations in the winter.
"We have a much higher need in the winter," she said. "It can sometimes take up to two weeks to fill a shelter’s request."
Borgeson said many homeless people tell the agencies they come to the East Valley because of the mild winters.
William Willcockson said he came to Mesa this winter for the climate. The 46-yearold homeless man said he lived with his parents in Louisiana until about two months ago, but now lives on the street — sleeping in parking lots most nights.
"It’s easier to breathe here. I’ve got asthma," he said. "And the police don’t bother us."
Mesa detective Tim Gaffney said officers direct homeless people to local services. The department also helps with an annual homeless census that helps determine government funding for social programs.
Gaffney said the census counted 212 homeless people this year in Mesa, down from 378 in 2003. The next headcount takes place on Jan 25.
Beyond police officers and kind strangers, a network of homeless people in the East Valley tells winter newcomers about local services, said Tim Harman, 55, a Mesa homeless man.
"The homeless are kind of like a little clique," he said. But it’s still difficult to distribute information about places like St. Vincent de Paul Society on Broadway Road in downtown Mesa, where Harman ate breakfast last week.
"Some things just aren’t known," he said. "Like if I see somebody, I tell him what I know, but where do you go to ask? "
In Tempe, homeless people new to the city’s downtown can ask police officers where resources are, said Tempe police Sgt. Dan Masters. Many officers patrolling Mill Avenue are on a first-name basis with the homeless people there, even the winter visitors, he added.
"We expect certain people to arrive at certain times of the year," Masters said, adding that officers will see groups of five or 10 homeless people who migrate from place to place together.
"They’ll tell us they spend the summers in Southern California or Colorado . . . and then spend the winters in Arizona, often on Mill Avenue," he said.
Resources for East Valley Homeless
• Community Network for Accessing Shelter 24-hour hotline: (800) 799-7739
• East Valley Men’s Center, 2345 N. Country Club Drive, Mesa, (480) 610-6722
• Paz de Cristo, 424 W. Broadway Road, Mesa, (480) 464-2370
• Salvation Army — Mesa, 241 E. Sixth St., (480) 833-8322
• Salvation Army — Tempe, 40 E. University Drive
• St. Vincent de Paul Society, 67 W. Broadway Road, Mesa
• Vista del Camino, 7700 E. Roosevelt St., Scottsdale, (480) 312-2330
To donate personal hygiene items for the homeless: Shoebox Ministry, 7902 East Wood Drive in Scottsdale, (480) 905-1610 or www.shoeboxministry.org