Sharpe to the Point: Phoenix’s Homeless ID Project Provides Unhoused with Proper Identification

Jim SharpeMarch 2, 2023
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Although the encampment known as the “The Zone” is only 16 miles from the end zones inside State Farm Stadium, it feels like it’s 16 million miles. Particularly when you think of the nine-figure Super Bowl LVII windfall reaped by the Valley.

Located primarily along 12th Avenue between Madison and Jefferson streets in Downtown Phoenix, The Zone is “home” to nearly 1,000 homeless individuals. Frustratingly, it feels like there’s 1,000 different sets of solutions to help them start living better lives – and to protect property and business owners in the area. As The Zone’s population has grown, so have the problems of crime, grime and, at times, public defecation.

It’s why a group of 15 residents and merchants have filed a lawsuit against Phoenix alleging that the city broke the law by allowing conditions in The Zone to deteriorate to the point that it has become a “public nuisance.”

The city argues that it’s building shelters and funding service providers, so it’s “attempting to go above and beyond.” Phoenix leaders say The Zone popped up where it did because it’s right outside the gates of the 13-acre
Human Services Campus (HSC) – a site that hosts more than a dozen partner organizations working to end homelessness.

As my understanding of the issue has grown, I’ve found that one of the keys to beating homelessness is surprisingly banal: giving people the ability to identify themselves.

Recently, I’ve become more involved with the Homeless ID Project – which carries out the important mission of helping secure identification cards for those who possess neither an ID nor a roof over their head. Last year, the Homeless ID Project provided 12,000-plus documents, including state ID cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, social security cards and replacement immigration documents.

Since 2019, Rick Mitchell, Homeless ID’s executive director, has given me quite the education on homelessness – starting with his organization’s role. “Getting proper ID is kind of like the linchpin to climbing out of homelessness, isn’t it?” I asked him after a tour of HIDP. Rick kindly corrected me: “No, Jim, it is the linchpin.”

Without papers, you’re paralyzed socially: You can’t get a job, rent an apartment or even enroll your kid in school.

Rick taught me more than that. I also learned that 75 percent of homeless people today will find homes within a year; 50 percent of them are families with children; and 15-18 percent of homeless folks are chronically homeless – people who will find themselves back in the same spot soon regardless of assistance, or who will simply refuse help in the first place.

As Rick has watched The Zone grow, he says he hasn’t seen a significant, corresponding bump in the number of people seeking Homeless ID Project’s services. This might suggest that those outside the Human Services Campus aren’t all that interested in seeking its resources. In other words, a large portion of the people in The Zone are the “chronically homeless.”

So, while relocating homeless campers in The Zone may be sweet relief for the people who live and work there, it surely won’t solve the problem long-term. 

Inevitably, a new zone will simply spring up somewhere else.