It’s no secret that Flagstaff has the highest cost of living of any city in the state, and this has impacted the prevalence of homelessness in the city. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Housing Market Profile for Flagstaff, the cost of living is 15% higher than the national average.
The average apartment rental rate in the first quarter of 2018 was $1,277 per month, and it’s only going to get higher, according to the HUD’s Fiscal Year 2016-2020 Consolidated Plan.
“Rents are expected to increase more significantly as demand for home purchases is expected to remain relatively low,” according to HUD’s Fiscal Year 2016-2020 Consolidated Plan Executive Summary.
Local activist Gabriel Sunrising hopes to stop rental inflation and help get rent to be more affordable as he, himself, is currently residing at the Sunshine Rescue Mission despite working in construction. He does marketing and roofing for Lion Heart Building and Investments, LLC.
“I’ve been canvasing around town and it seems everyone agrees with me that the rent is too high,” Sunrising said. “And by too high, that means it’s detrimental to society, to Flagstaff’s community. The price of living has gone up 48% since 2014 on average, while the minimum wage has only gone up a little over 18%.”
Sunrising is worried that the inflation rate will continue to increase, even though the minimum wage will rise to $15 per hour by next year, it can cause an inflation in rental rates.
“But by 2020, it’s going to be 20% more,” Sunrising said.
He acknowledged that these projections could not end up being correct.
Sunrising has started Flagstaff Rent Revolution (FRR) by using social media and word of mouth to organize protests. He has already held some protests at City Hall and the Flagstaff Mall.
“We’ve had one at the mall recently,” Sunrising said. “There were only about 15 of us, a third of us were homeless with jobs and a few didn’t have jobs as well.”
He hopes to emulate the Red for Ed movement and plans to hold more protests in front of city hall.
Sunrising said that another barrier within the rental market, despite the rising rates themselves, are credit checks.
“Homeless people don’t have a lot of credit,” Sunrising said. “So even when you are making a lot of good money, they check your credit in the application and even nowadays around here they check your credit just to be a roommate.”
His solution would be a local legislation that would require renters to appropriate an applicant’s credit score to their income. Sunrising also worries about what will happen to Flagstaff if the inflation doesn’t stop.
“If you keep doing this to this town, it’s going to be like Detroit where the population is steadily decreasing while the economy is steadily collapsing,” Sunrising said. “I don’t want that for Flagstaff.”
Another factor holding back many homeless people are their felony records, according to Sunrising.
“A homeless person is more likely, by three times, to get in trouble with the law,” Sunrising said.
He stated Arizona’s recidivism rate was around 78% as well, with many ending up being repeat offenders because housing options to those with criminal records were limited.
NAU junior Eric Soholt explained why he joined FFR.
“I’m currently unemployed, I was employed last year but am doing a lot of volunteer work right now,” Soholt said. “The only reason why I’m able to do that is [because] I get help from my parents, otherwise I would not be able to afford living.”
Local charities and shelters are feeling the effects of the rising rent as well, and Catholic Charities (CC) homeless outreach coordinator Richard Brust sees these effects daily. CC offers programs to not only assist the homeless in finding housing but employment as well. However, the volume of people seeking these services are high.
“As far as Catholic Charities overall, it was just shy of 5,000 people last year,” Brust said. “Add winter outreach on top of that, and with unique individuals, families and family members, we provide to another 300 to 500 a year.”
CC receives federal funding and donations, and the biggest program they sponsor is Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH).
“With the PATH program up here, our main goal is to get everybody we find that thinks they are, or have ever been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and if they’re interested we can help build case schools with them to further their stepping stones to success,” Brust said.
PATH is operated on a first come, first serve basis. However, due to limited resources they can’t always help everyone as Sunrising, himself has been turned away before seeking services. Sunrising said even he couldn’t get an appointment. In a recording of his exchange with a CC worker, the worker was only able to refer him to Flagstaff Shelter Services.
For those who can get appointments, CC aims to provide access to mental health care. Brust explained this is often another barrier that many homeless people face, along with identification.
“One of the biggest areas is identification assistance,” Brust said. “If somebody comes in from out of state they might need a new ID. We try to help them out with either birth certificates, certificates of Indian blood, social security cards, things like that.”
CC also assists in getting homeless people registered for Medicaid and the EBT program, however with two recent staff resignations within CC, the workload for Brust and everyone working there has increased. The positions will be filled this summer.
“They just moved on, so we’re waiting until the end of the fiscal year, which is July 1, to hire new staff,” Brust said.
Brust stated that the climate was another problem for the homeless. He explained last year they had to handle a lot more people due to the fire restrictions banning camping in the forests because a lot of homeless people who usually camp in the forest were forced to try to find places to live within town.
“With the high drought levels, the fire danger was up so they closed all of the forests, so we had an influx of families that were out in town,” Brust said. “Between us, Coconino County Community Services and United Way [of Northern Arizona], we had to work on a lot more hotel funding just for their cases.”
He added the city’s ordinance banning camping within city limits wasn’t helping that problem either. However, an even bigger problem Brust saw while confronting the homeless who were employed was the lack of sleeping areas for those who worked overnight during the day.
“That’s the hard part too, especially if they work the night shift,” Brust said. “They can’t go back to the shelters and sleep in the day. You have to be out on the street after 6 a.m. and that’s pretty standard at all the shelters.”
Brust foresees an increase in the number of people seeking services at CC, as well as with rent rates continuing to rise. He is preparing to try to handle it.
Sunrising is still working and still protesting. He plans to go to city council meetings to talk to council members and the mayor about these issues.