How one ASU student is addressing the homelessness crisis in Maricopa County

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Homelessness has always been with us, but one college student is making a difference trying to help one of the most vulnerable populations. Producer John Brown and Videographer Rudy Romo take an inside look at the homelessness crisis in Maricopa County.

Salads in hand, chilled lemonade, and a warm heart, ASU senior Austin Davis makes his way to the “zone,” a tent city near Downtown Phoenix to give to Phoenix’s homeless population. Davis started this endeavor during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and created Arizona Hugs for the Houseless in March 2020. .The acronym, HUGS, stands for houseless dignity, understanding and empathy, generosity, and soul and smiles.

“At AZ Hugs, we bring people the essential items like food, water, tents, and everything that a person needs to survive on the streets,” Davis said.

He calls his experience rewarding, and brings necessities such as water, masks, and other personal goods for people, often daily.

“At first, we were bringing people face masks and water because those were the direct needs in the moment. From there the project just grew and we brought in a lot of volunteers, and now it’s become pretty big,” he added.

And Although Davis’s outreach only goes so far, one man who is experiencing homelessness says phoenix’s homeless resources need to improve drastically.

“The resources that they offer you over there are completely different, and it’s not in a good way,” Gabriel Santiago-Quinones said.

Gabriel Santiago-Quinones navigates the streets of Phoenix as he scrambles to find housing. Originally from Pennsylvania, Santiago-Quinones came to Arizona to find new opportunities. Opportunities he says have gone down drastically due to the city of Phoenix’s lack of support for the homeless. Eight months in Santiago-Quinones says he has no luck with housing assistance.

“They don’t treat us with respect, first of all. People sometimes really judge a book by its cover. Just because it is that one bad egg does not mean that all the other eggs are bad,” Santiago-Quinones mentioned.

According to the city of Phoenix’s latest February update, there are nearly 7,500 Maricopa County residents dealing with homeless. The city has allocated 80 million dollars for pandemic shelter beds and other COVID-19 related assistance.

Davis says the city needs to understand that its residents are in dire need of help and assistance.

“If I were to say one thing to the city, it would be, people are dying everyday here in our city. These are our neighbors and they deserved to be treated as such. No one should die on the streets, yet people do everyday.”

In the mayor’s strategy to address homelessness, Mayor Kate Gallego defines short term goals as to get research funding for mental health outreach teams to better engage and connect individuals experiencing homelessness to mental and behavioral health services. As well as including the ability to complete SMI, also known as serious mental health illness evaluations in the field.

It also includes exploring alternative service delivery models for delivering service to individuals suffering from behavioral and mental health conditions that require emergency crisis response currently provided through traditional 911 responders.

Davis says he does all he can to plug the gap on homelessness, and hopes to inspire and make an impact on people to be more involved in the community.“I want to show people that they are not alone. I want to be a friend.”

If you want to learn more about Davis’s outreach, visit the Arizona Hugs for the Houseless Instagram page @azhugs.

John Brown, Producer
Rudy Romo, Videographer
Austin Davis, ASU Student and Activist
Gabriel Santiago-Quinones, Experiencing Homelessness

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