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'Joy can be just as important as anything': This Arizona organization is feeding people in need

For 30 years of his life, Tempe resident Milenko, who chose not to share his last name, has been either homeless or living in prison. Now he sleeps across various Tempe parks, staying as long as he can until he receives a trespassing citation from a police officer and is de facto forced to move to a new location.

Many other homeless people have experienced similar situations as Milenko as they wait on the waitlist for a homeless shelter that is currently 12-weeks long.  

With the coldest months of the year on the horizon, ensuring these individuals have access to food and clothes becomes a pressing issue. AZ Hugs is an organization that aims to help the lives of Tempe homeless community members wherever it can, hosting seasonal item drives, food distribution, laundry services and crisis response.

Austin Davis, AZ Hugs’ founder, can’t always offer permanent solutions. But the temporary ones he can are often just as meaningful. The 23-year-old has been providing help to individuals experiencing homelessness for over two years.

“My philosophy is really based on the idea that we might not have all the answers, money, or resources, but I can be a friend to you, and you can be a friend to me,” Davis said. “We work together to try to figure out next steps for each person's specific situation.” 

Davis helped obtain a stockpile of sweaters from an AZ Hugs winter items drive. He was able to  give a few of the sweaters to Milenko. 

“It helps keep me warm so I (don’t have to) go dumpster dive the sweaters myself,” Milenko said. 

According to Davis, the “Family Picnic” event the group holds every Sunday offers relief from more than just food insecurities.

“We started this a couple years back because a lot of folks were saying that Sunday is a harder day for them than other days,” Davis said. “I heard things like ‘I'm more depressed or sad on that day’, and we kind of thought, ‘Okay, we're a family out here on the streets, so let's have a picnic.’”

The picnics are open to individuals in  need of  a meal, and they often help people in need obtain necessities besides just food. According to Davis, an important impact of the picnics has been connecting people with crisis services, including rehab centers and clinics. Davis said the hardest part of helping someone is to make them feel comfortable enough to ask for it. 

“I found that once people feel comfortable talking about the scary thing, whatever the scary thing is — getting clean, going home to mom, whatever — it's a lot easier to take that leap when you have someone you trust,” Davis said.

Shaggy, who chose not to share his full name, is another individual who self-identifies as homeless and gets support from Davis and AZ Hugs in the form of food, clothes and friendship. He spends a majority of his time in the park, where most events are held, alongside his friends. Shaggy and his dog Seven are both fed by AZ Hugs on Sundays. 

“Austin has really helped with anything I’ve ever asked him. If he can, he does,” Shaggy said. Shaggy motioned towards his dog and asked, “We eat on plates now, huh, Seven?”

Austin not only hosts and attends the organization’s various  events, but he is also willing to respond to the needs of the  community at any hour.

“The other night I called Austin at midnight because there was a guy out here who needed mental health help,” Shaggy said. “He picked up the phone and sounded like he just woke up, and he still came to help.” 

AZ Hugs takes special requests from people experiencing homelessness, and they post the items to their website and social media accounts. 

There can be a wide range of requests, but Davis believes that the ‘wants,’ such as coloring materials like pens and paper, can be just as important as the needs, such as a tent or a pregnancy test.

“I think spreading a little joy can be just as important as anything,” Davis said. “When people see a real person and a name next to these requests, it gets a lot more personal.” 

Davis encourages the public to participate in the organization. 

“If you have an extra blanket, maybe throw it in your car in case you see someone who needs it,” Davis said. “It's those little things that add up, and if everyone does that, we can really just bring our community closer together."

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