About a dozen former residents of the Ocotillo Apartments and Hotel trickled into Tucson City Hall ready to confront their elected officials during Tuesday’s council meeting. They’re all newly unhoused and had to rely on concerned residents for a ride. Some had to bring their pets because they had nowhere to leave them.

They carried hand-written signs reading: “Stop the evictions.”

“Housing is a human right.”

“Evictions kill.”

People speaking during the call to the audience about what unraveled at the Ocotillo included housing-rights advocates, and Tucsonans who had nothing to do with the crisis, yet, wanted to know more about what city officials are, or are not, doing to help. 

Drew Fellows, an advocate and paralegal who had been visiting the building to support residents with resources and legal recourse, outlined injustices that he’d witnessed residents experience, criticizing city officials for falling short to protect vulnerable people. Fellows said the city knew for months that residents were living in squalor after city code enforcement officials cited the building owners in March. He questioned why the city didn’t condemn the building until recently amid the statewide Medicaid scam defrauding residents, as well as why residents spent hours calling for city housing services with no one responding with help.

“They were forcefully evicted last Friday when the city condemned the building, finally,” Fellows said. “TPD came out in force to kick people out.”

Residents in the audience clapped.

Mayor Regina Romero followed Fellows’ comments stating that earlier on Tuesday there was a study session where Mari Vasquez, the city’s Multi-Agency Resource Coordinator, read a memorandum detailing the city of Tucson’s response to the crisis. Romero said the memo clarified “the timeline of what had happened and what the city of Tucson has done and is continuing to do in this particular unfortunate …”

Before Romero could finish speaking, the crowd erupted in a chorus saying the city’s help amounted to: “Nothing!” 

Romero, raising her voice, warned the audience to stop speaking. “You cannot interrupt or I will have you kicked out,” Romero said. “You cannot interrupt.”

A former Ocotillo resident in the audience responded: “It’s not the first time we’ve been kicked out of something!”

Romero directed City Manager Michael Ortega to explain the city’s response. Ortega said that he couldn’t offer “too much detail” because the item was not on the agenda, adding that people who want to know more can watch the study session and read the memo.

Georgitta Koernig in a screenshot from the Tucson city council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

Following the tense moment, Georgitta Koernig, in a jean jacket and silver hoops, took the podium. Staring hard at city officials, Georgitta detailed her journey of becoming unhoused since COVID-19 and what she’s lived through before and after the mass eviction at the Ocotillo. 

“We suffered,” Georgitta said. “There’s so many people right now living out in tents, suffering with no running water, no electric, nothing to eat.”

The sober-living program abandoning residents and the condemnation of the building led to her, and 250 other Ocotillo residents, having to vacate their homes. Over the past several months, residents say they were abused and neglected by New Directions Behavioral Health, the fraudulent sober-living program that primarily targeted Native Americans.

Koernig’s speech was among many given by former Ocotillo residents during the meeting — all had a similar tone of outrage and desolation at the lack of help from the city and state after they lost their homes.

Just hours before, the Tucson City Council study session painted a different picture.

The meeting began with city officials, including Romero and City Manager Michael Ortega praising the interagency collaboration in response to the Ocotillo’s eviction and ultimate condemnation that left residents in crisis and homeless.

Vasquez, the city’s multi-agency resource coordinator, issued and read a memo detailing the timeline of the city’s involvement and response to the Ocotillo situation. The memo came at Romero’s request in order to “clarify and really undo misinformation that has been distributed by people that really don’t know the facts of the situation.”

Vasquez said major points of misinformation included the belief the city evicted residents when, she said, the city only vacated the premises after code enforcement officials condemned the building.

Additionally, she said some activists erroneously told residents to lock their doors and remain in the building, which complicated city outreach and evacuation efforts. The memo details how 21 agencies and organizations were involved in the response and how the collaboration was a model effort. 

Vasquez said the city, collaborating agencies and outside organizations provided residents with “information about available services and resources including but not limited to a plan for shelter moving forward, food, personal hygiene items, detox resources, MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) services, healthcare, behavioral health support, transportation, pet care and other services or supports that might be identified by or specific to the individual requesting assistance.”

The city took action the day after residents received a notice from Ocotillo building management that gave people 48 hours to vacate and the Tucson Police Department reported the situation to city staff.

During the study meeting, Ward 3 council member Kevin Dahl commented on the extent of the city’s response.

“I can’t imagine there’s much more that the city could have done,” Dahl said.

Ward 2 city council member Paul Cunningham told Arizona Luminaria following the study session that he is outraged by the exploitation at the core of the New Directions program. He said the city should step in and consider purchasing the building to provide services that New Directions failed to offer and to house people forced out of the building.

“If owners of this property are really complicit, then the building should be condemned and used for its original purpose as a sober-living facility,” Cunningham told Arizona Luminaria.

A troubled history at Ocotillo

Speakers at the call to the audience didn’t just criticize the city’s emergency response to residents’ impending displacement, they denounced code enforcement for not looking into the happenings at the Ocotillo after multiple violations.

The program, denoted by the city as Happy Times/New Directions, targeted people with substance abuse issues by offering substance abuse treatment, housing and resources, like hygiene supplies. 

Meanwhile, the program billed their insurance, primarily the American Indian Health Program. The state’s Medicaid agency, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which oversees these programs, suspended payments to New Directions on Sept. 15 after receiving credible evidence of fraud.

Program participants in the Ocotillo received sparse meals, if they were even fed, there was no substance abuse treatment and, without warning, the program stopped paying the hotel, leading to more than $360,000 in missed payments and Ocotillo management’s decision to force people out of the building.

Koernig, the former resident, acknowledges the building management’s struggle but doesn’t see why they’re paying for it.

“They lost out on this deal too, but it’s not our fault and they took it out on us,” Koernig said.

After detailing the treatment Happy Times/New Direction participants received, Koernig called out the city for not responding to her previous pleas about the treatment and conditions in the program and hotel. 

“We called. We tried. And I talked to somebody from the city,” Koernig said at the podium. “They said, ‘Well, it’s the state’s fault.’”

In the memo, Vasquez outlines that it took until Sept. 18 and Sept. 19 for it to become clear that “the Ocotillo apartments did have a significant history for calls from public safety agencies, many times for dangerous scenarios.”

However, there are many records from the city of Tucson that show ongoing signs of trouble at the Ocotillo before the evacuation began.

According to the Tucson Police Department records, from early August to early September, the police department received 94 calls for service to Ocotillo. Multiple residents said at least one incident involved the building’s armed private security.

Before building management attempted to evict residents, there was a history of code violations documented by code enforcement. Following a fire in May, code enforcement deemed at least 30 rooms to be unsafe. Following the visit, Ocotillo management placed residents, including Koernig, in some of the rooms listed as unsafe in city records in May. Koernig’s room still had soot in it at the time of the eviction.

Soot in the Koernig’s room at Ocotillo Apartments and Hotel in September. Credit: Carolina Cuellar

Code enforcement did not revisit the property until two days after building management told residents to leave in September.

Additionally, the complex lacked hot water since the May fire and city of Tucson records show a complaint to code enforcement about the issue in June. Records show that code enforcement closed the complaint and labeled it unfounded because the person who issued it did not answer the phone.

Code enforcement took no further action and hotel management ignored fixing the hot water heater, despite residents’ pleas.

In the memo, city officials said they found out about the lack of hot water after individuals told them after Sept. 11. They brought in portable showers on Sept. 20, 53 days after a resident filed their complaint with code enforcement. 

Koernig and other former residents emphasized they wanted long-term solutions that weren’t temporary shelters where partners and pets would be separated. 

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Fellows, the paralegal who spent time at the Ocotillo building advising people of their rights and who now represents dozens of former residents, announced certain demands on residents’ behalf:

  • “Immediate housing for all former tenants of the Ocotillo.
  • An immediate investigation into Happy Times for their cruel treatment they’ve given to residents.
  • Health care from relevant government offices for those tenants of Ocotillo who were caught in the building fire and the fallout from that.
  • The prosecution and finding of the fraudsters who scammed AHCCCS out of millions of dollars.”

Romero said advocates made it harder for the city to help Ocotillo residents by spreading misinformation.

After the meeting, Koernig stood outside City Hall alongside her husband and reconvened with her fellow Ocotillo residents amid crowds of protestors there to support them.

Despite the large turnout they were tired and still had no idea where to go next. Right now, they were in shelters or hotels, but only temporarily. Others were on the street indefinitely. 

Koernig told Arizona Luminaria that the pair lost their home during COVID, after which they lived on the street while waiting for approval of their application to the Arizona Department of Housing’s Rapid Re-Housing Program.

The delay in their application is what made them join the fraudulent sober living program to begin with.

“Where’s our housing that we were promised before we went into this program?” she said.

Now, they feel worse off than before when they were trying to get help from the government.

“We went from one point, now we’re back behind again. At least there we had running water, at least there we had a door to shut, at least there we had protection over our head,” she said.

The Koernigs are, once again, in pursuit of a home despite going through multiple avenues for help. Now, they’ll return to a temporary hotel room and only until their emergency funds run out.

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Carolina Cuellar is a bilingual journalist based in Tucson covering South Arizona. Previously she reported on border and immigration issues in the Rio Grande Valley for Texas Public Radio. She has an M.S....