An organization called HOPE Inc. recently received two calls in quick succession about displaced families in Santa Cruz County.
A family was camping in a two-room tent on Lake Patagonia. To stay warm they purchased a butane heater. Another was living outside the van.
Yet another family could no longer afford to live in the house, said Erika Godinez of the group. So they set up a temporary camp on the border of their former property, Godinez said, to keep the children’s lives somewhat normal.
“These parents are trying really hard,” she added.
Godinez works as a peer navigator for HOPE, a statewide nonprofit that provides behavioral health and community services in Nogales. When the organization encounters families in need of shelter, Godinez and other staff try to connect them with resources such as temporary accommodation in hotels and rental assistance for several months.
Speaking to NI from HOPE’s Nogales office, she said the pressure continues on families facing housing insecurity, a sentiment echoed by officials at the county’s largest school district.
“The number of homeless people has nearly doubled in five years,” said Kathy Scott, director of grants for the Nogales Unified School District.
Homelessness is on the rise statewide: Arizona’s homeless population has risen by the thousands over the past three years and will exceed 13,000 by 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Local families are not immune to housing insecurity, either. Families seeking shelter in vans and tents represent some of the more extreme examples of homelessness in Santa Cruz County, Scott said, but families gathering in apartments and homes to “double up.” is much more common.
As a result, community housing issues are often hidden in plain sight.
In December 2022, NUSD identified 448 students as homeless. This is an increase of about 100 students compared to the previous year.
Earlier this month at NI, Scott emphasized that the vast majority of homeless NUSD families (over 99 percent) are “family members who live with them.”
HOPE Peer Navigator Godinez observed a similar trend. Sometimes, she noted, her family stays in someone else’s living room, trying to save money on an apartment while still maintaining a living.
“The problem is most of these people have jobs,” Godines said. “But they don’t have the money to come up with a transfer fee or down payment.”
According to Godinez, being alone at home comes with unique complications, especially for children.
“What we are seeing is a lot of emotional and behavioral turmoil,” she added.
Sometimes children tell their families that they don’t want to go to school. Godinez said they may stay in school as long as possible to avoid overcrowded housing arrangements.
Sharing a house or apartment designed for one family can also pose legal risks for residents. Under Arizona law, law enforcement can evict informal tenants from properties at the landlord’s request.
However, Godinez stressed that HOPE is working with local school district contacts to provide relief, not punish families.
“Years ago, you couldn’t say you were couchsurfing with two families in one household without contacting[children’s services],” Godines said.
But today the approach is very different, she added.
“If you can help a family member, and the child’s well-being is nothing but the family’s recent homelessness… consider what you can do to help them.” she added. .
Santa Cruz County is notorious for its limited availability of affordable housing.
According to HOPE data, Nogales has only 9 multi-family dwellings, or 10 or more. Rio Rico has two such apartment complexes.
And now all of the above complexes have waiting lists of one to two years, Godinez said. This has been reflected in his past NI reports.
“Some people can’t wait that long,” Godinez explained.
When faced with families in need of housing, HOPE draws on several community resources. This organization provides housing for up to 30 days in a local hotel. Staff also work with families to apply for housing through the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG), a federal program that can provide rental assistance for several months.
Godinez said he is looking at other sources of funding as well.
“We’ve had really good news this year,” she said, noting that the state housing agency plans to pour about $150,000 into Santa Cruz County specifically to combat housing insecurity.
“Individuals can now use the money to pay for positions to work, mostly for homeless people,” she said.
Scott said NUSD received millions of dollars through the COVID-19 Relief Fund, with more budget allocated for housing assistance than usual.
Scott, along with student services coordinator Judith Mendoza Jimenez, noted that school districts have played a bigger role in finding housing and other stable resources for families in recent years. And in 2022, he has a new, grant-funded role active within the district: Community Engagement Coordinator. Coordinators work with homeless students and provide services to families such as housing subsidies and medical referrals.
The position had been vacant for several months, according to Scott and Mendoza Jimenez, but it was noticeable. Additional support for families is now very important, they said.
“We’re waiting with bated breath for someone to sit at that desk over there,” Scott said, pointing to an empty workspace reserved for coordinators.
‘I need to reach out’
On a Tuesday morning in early February, Mendoza-Jiménez pushed open the basement door of the NUSD District Office. Wooden shelves were neatly lined with shoes, khaki pants, and polo shirts. Nearby lay a tube of deodorant, a box of tampons, and a bottle of bright green hair conditioner. The hallway was stocked with toys and chairs to provide a waiting area for the children to play while her parents discussed their financial needs.
Mendoza Jimenez said the pandemic has led to more families seeking help with not only housing but other financial needs.
One family had stable housing but could not afford a bed, she explained.
“They were sleeping on the floor,” Mendoza Jimenez said.
Scott, Director of Grants, also reached out.
“We gifted them with a really good blow-up mattress,” she added.
On behalf of HOPE, Godinez also noted the increasing number of people seeking help, particularly through NUSD and the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District. School districts play an important role in connecting families with resources. Godinez said many parents often feel comfortable confiding in school officials about sensitive issues such as recent evictions or financial difficulties.
“The culture here is very tight-lipped. …What happens at home stays at home,” Godinez said.
But just recently she added: “People are really starting to get the hang of it. You need to get help.”