CASA GRANDE — The pandemic has slowed the city of Casa Grande’s efforts to help homeless people in the area.

The pandemic forced a number of federal and state social service employees to work from home, slowing services to those in need, Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said at a Tuesday meeting of the city’s new Chronic Homeless Coalition.

The coalition includes representatives from the city including the Police Department, CGHelps, the Community Action Human Resources Agency, the Pinal County Health Department and several other service agencies.

It’s an offshoot of the mayor’s Homeless Task Force and tries to meet once a month, McFarland said. The coalition was just starting to get things rolling on coordinating local, state and federal programs for homeless people in Casa Grande when the pandemic threw a wrench in the works.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also canceled its annual nationwide Point-In-Time count of homeless people in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, McFarland said, which made it difficult to know just how many homeless people were in the area, why they were without a home and what services they needed to find housing.

In response, the city and local organizations such as CGHelps held their own point-in-time count in September, approaching and collecting information from about 45 individuals, McFarland said.

Casa Grande Deputy Police Chief Angel Leos believes that there are probably many more homeless people in the area than that and that a number of people were missed because of the rain that day.

Casa Grande officers try to work with homeless people they come across during their patrols, Leos said.

The Police Department does a monthly outreach where officers and social service volunteers approach homeless people, offer them a snack pack with toiletries and non-perishable snacks, a blanket or jacket in cold weather and information on local services that can help them, Leos said. A number of patrol officers also carry the snack packs in their vehicles.

But they are not trained to be social workers and if there is evidence of a crime, such as drugs, public drinking or assault, then officers are required to investigate and possibly arrest or cite someone, Leos said.

The law also prevents officers from taking certain actions, he said. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that stated that people sleeping outside in a public place cannot be cited or arrested if there are no alternative arrangements available, such as a shelter. So officers can’t cite someone in a Casa Grande city park because there is no shelter available in Casa Grande.

Officers also can’t remove a person from private property without the property owner specifically giving officers permission to “trespass” the person, he said.

This can be more difficult than it sounds, Leos said. A number of properties in the city are owned by people or businesses that are located outside of the state or county. Getting ahold of these absentee property holders can be difficult.

He pointed to a recent example involving an old auto dealership in the downtown area. Officers noticed a large group of homeless people living on the property. But it took repeated phone calls to the property owner in Mesa before Leos was able to receive a form requesting officers to remove people on the property.

Leos said officers have notified the people staying on the property and will be providing a trash container for them to throw away items they don’t want to keep before they move on.

It is the responsibility of the landowner or landlord to maintain their property, McFarland stated in an email about the city’s troubles with some vacant properties. The city does have ordinances and can cite a property owner for not following those ordinances.

The city prefers to work with the property owner through an abatement process rather than condemn a property, City Manager Larry Rains stated in an email about that process. The abatement process can range from requiring a yard to be cleaned up to securing a property or even demolition.

The abatement process involves sending out a series of notices giving the property owner a deadline to fix the situation with their property, McFarland stated in his email. In some cases, it can get to the point that the city has to condemn a property and have it torn down.

The condemnation process can be very time consuming and require a fair amount of legal work, Rains stated in his email.

If the city does have to condemn and tear down a property, it can put a lean on it to be reimbursed for the cost of the demolition, McFarland stated. However, the process can take years.

Officers are also starting to note the location of homeless people they encounter during their regular patrols so the information can be given to local service groups such as CGHelps and other programs that can reach out to those in need on their own, Leos said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, he suggested creating a group of volunteers from various organizations that would reach out to homeless people in the area once a week or at least more than once a month to see how people are doing.

It can take up to six or seven contacts with a person who is homeless or needs help before they will accept help, Leo said. He offered to send a plainclothes officer with any group that felt they might need the extra security. An officer in uniform can be intimidating to someone who is homeless, he said.

He also noted that many homeless people who have been cited by the police are showing up for their hearings at Casa Grande city Court. Leos said he’s spoken with a judge who would consider having representatives from local social services groups in the courtroom to offer services to some of those in need.

Social service organizations, like some restaurants and stores, are having a hard time finding full-time employees due to the pandemic, said Suzanne Payan from CAHRA and CGHelps. The organization also had to close its office in August due to damage to the building’s roof and ceiling from the rain. It is offering services a few days of the week and is hoping to reopen fully and offer services nearly every day soon.

CGHelps is working to get a nurse practitioner to help provide clinical services for homeless people in the area and a medical professional that can offer COVID vaccine shots to those who want them, she said.

The department has also been working with local tribal governments to get help for tribal members who may make their way to Casa Grande and find themselves in need, Leos said.

Another concern may be an increase in the number of people being evicted from their homes or apartments due to the pandemic eviction moratorium expiring, Leos said. He suggested reaching out to landlords to see if they had tenants who could use help and see if they could bring computers and volunteers to help tenants and landlords sign up for pandemic aid to prevent someone from being evicted.

The hope is to prevent more individuals and families from ending up on the city streets, he said.

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Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa is a reporter covering the city of Casa Grande and the surrounding area, as well as Central Arizona College. She can be reached at sadams@pinalcentral.com.

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