Medical issues. Job loss. Eviction. Isolation. Lack of affordable housing. Whatever their path to homelessness, the individual stories told during a recent count of the number of people experiencing homelessness were universally heartbreaking. “With the trials and tribulations that we go through out here being homeless, constantly having to move from here to here…it takes a toll on us,” related one man as he huddled in blankets behind a convenience store. Although he preferred to not be identified by name, he shared that living on the streets has been rough as he has dealt with numerous health issues, including experiencing several heart attacks. Numbers rise The number of people experiencing homelessness continues to increase across the region. Those living in unsheltered situations climbed by 35 percent since 2020, according to a count in March coordinated by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG). The numbers, which are consistent with national trends, reflect a two-year increase. The 2021 count was not conducted due to COVID. The count, conducted January 25th by hundreds of volunteers across the region, is designed to serve as a snapshot of homelessness on a single night. The count found more than 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in unsheltered situations in Maricopa County. Those in shelter also were counted, but information on those numbers is still being processed. Once complete, a full report combining the numbers will be compiled, along with an analysis of other trends. Further study of populations such as youth, families and veterans will more fully define the homelessness picture. More than statistics While the rise in numbers is troubling, the increase was not unexpected. Local governments have been working for months on an in-depth regional approach to homelessness. In December, the MAG Regional Council unanimously approved “ Pathways Home ,” the first regional homelessness action plan created by local and tribal governments. The plan focuses on committing to work regionally, increasing safe housing options, and supporting diverse partnerships. “Homelessness is a critical issue for the Valley,” says Mesa Mayor John Giles, who serves as the chair of the MAG Regional Council. “This is a regional challenge that needs regional solutions. These numbers are much more than statistics — they represent individuals, each with their own unique story. They are our neighbors, and our community. We all have a role to play in ensuring their access to safe, attainable housing.” Anthony Duran is one of those stories. He invited MAG staff inside the tent where he had been living for just three days near Central Phoenix before the PIT count. He pointed out his makeshift heater, featuring a metal plate where he says he puts alcohol and burns it in order to keep warm during the cold days. The night of this year’s count was one of the Valley’s coldest. COVID-19 and economic strain While an annual increase in homelessness has been a consistent trend since 2014, the pandemic also played a factor. COVID-19 strained economies worldwide and caused the loss of jobs, placing people more at risk of homelessness. Riann Balch chairs the Maricopa Regional Continuum of Care Board , the regional group tasked with addressing homelessness in the region. Balch also serves as community development and resources manager for the city of Chandler. “Rapidly changing market conditions and economic hardship heightened by the pandemic have created opportunities to work together across sectors and geography to address the housing crisis,” she says. “Housing is the foundation for healthy families and vibrant communities, and there are many new options to explore. This is an all-hands-on-deck kind of movement – we all have something to bring to the table,” says Balch. Volunteers consisting of local leaders, community and faith-based organizations, businesses and private residents participated in the count, which was conducted entirely electronically for the first time via an app developed by MAG in 2018. The app helped capture more accurate data, provide for better data analysis, and allowed for the release of numbers earlier than previous years. How you can help Support the regional strategies and action plan through MAG: Regional Homelessness Strategies Donate through the Healthy Giving Council: givesmartaz.org Volunteer through Hands on Phoenix: handsonphoenix.org Support a range of housing options in your community, including affordable housing and temporary housing solutions. More information is available through the Arizona Housing Coalition at azhousingcoalition.org .