Homeless In Plain Sight: What Help Is Available To The Homeless?

By Stina Sieg
Published: Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, December 28, 2017 - 7:07am

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This is Part IV in a special five-part series, Homeless In Plain Sight, in which KJZZ hopes to start a community conversation about the people, programs and potential solutions to homelessness in the Phoenix area.

a volunteer chats with a client at project connect
(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
There are many services in the Valley to help the homeless, but often people don't know about them. So, the Valley of the United Way puts on Project Connect several times a year, where volunteers help people find the aid they need.

On a sunny Thursday morning, a few hundred people packed the gym at a Mormon church in Mesa. Some were living on the street. Others were in shelters. Some came with their dog, some with their kids. And all were matched up with a volunteer.

“OK, what services were you going to need to today?” asked a woman holding a clipboard and a nametag.

“What are you offering today?” a young mom responded, prompting the volunteer to go through an incredibly long list — just as she had many times already that day.

There was so much there, from the basics, like toiletries and clothing, to the more complex needs, like help signing up for food assistance or getting a birth certificate. All of those services were available within a few feet of one another. It’s called Project Connect, and the Valley of the Sun United Way puts it on eight times a year at spots all over metro Phoenix, with the help of dozens of other agencies.

This is definitely not an “information fair,” explained United Way’s Amy Schwabenlender. This is all about getting people results right now.

“I love Project Connect days, because we can do so much at one time, in one place for people, that otherwise might take them months, sometimes years to take all of those steps,” she said.

But stepping outside for a second, Schwabenlender added that she knows people can only accept the help they’re ready to accept.

“Someone might show up for the first time, and they’re skeptical. They don’t have a lot of trust,” she said. “They especially don’t have a lot of trust for systems or institutions, and for them to show up and maybe take a shower, get a haircut, have lunch, that’s a big deal.”

And to feel comfortable enough asking about housing or a job? That might take several trips to Project Connect. But regardless of their pace, the people there are still in a better place — because they want assistance.

Tim McCann, with works with the nonprofit Community Bridges, often deals with those who don’t. Many of McCann’s work days involve him connecting personally with people who live on the street. This time, it was a woman who’s carrying around no less than six pieces of luggage — and who was just shooed away from the old federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix.

“We’re here to help,” he told her, a representative from another agency by his side.

“Right now I’m a civil nuisance. I’m not trying to be,” she said, as the two men assured her that she wasn’t a nuisance, just someone they wanted to assist.

They were doing their best to urge this woman into going to the Human Services Campus, just a few blocks away, where she could get a meal and a place to sleep.

But McCann said she was having none of it.

“The story is she’s in contact with family in North Carolina,” he said. “She’s either getting ready to go or they’re coming out here.”

And how long has McCann been hearing that story?

“Six months,” he said. “Since we engaged. Same story.”

And if that story never changes, she might not just be talking with McCann — but with police.

That’s even though, in Nick DiPonzio’s words, “Being homeless isn’t a crime.”

DiPonzio is with the Phoenix Police Department, a Resource Lieutenant at the Mountainview Precinct. He explained the police and representatives from Neighborhood Services are now going out together to speak with the homeless, and try to make them aware of the help out there. Some of these people are habitual offenders of crimes like trespassing and theft. But when it comes to the homeless issue, you can’t simply “arrest your way out of it,” DiPonzio said.

“And to be honest, you’re never going to solve homelessness,” he explained. “But what we want to do is, we want to make sure the vulnerable members of our community are safe, and we want to make sure the citizens are safe at the same time. And we want to provide the service that both the community and these homeless citizens need.”

Back at Project Connect in Mesa, Amy Schwabenlender spent all day trying to get people the snacks and shelter, backpacks and bus tickets they need — with varying degrees of success. Back when she started this job more than a decade ago, Schwabenlender says a coworker gave her some advice she still thinks about. He told her, this kind of work is both healing and hurtful.

“If we think about one person’s success, it’s healing,” she said. “If we think about all the people we didn’t have our definition of success with, then it hurts.”

In her words, it’s a balance all the time.

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