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ASU student inspired to help homeless — and bring a little joy

By

Constance-Sophie Almendares

In March 2020, as college students were scrambling to adjust to the sudden changes wrought by the pandemic, Arizona State University undergraduate Austin Davis kept his focus on others — specifically the homeless population of the metro Phoenix area.

He joined his friend Eddie Chavez Calderon, the campaign organizer for Arizona Jews for Justice (AJJ), to hand out water bottles and face coverings to this most vulnerable part of the Arizona population, particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

Food, water and hygiene products were the essential items supplied to people without homes during the weekly deliveries. However, as Davis’ experience and the pandemic progressed, he noticed that people were beginning to request specific items they were yearning for, whether it was a meal from their favorite restaurant or a deck of cards.

This was the spark that began the Arizona Jews for Justice Unsheltered Outreach program, now called AZ Hugs for the Houseless since January 2021. “Hugs” is actually an acronym explaining the mission of the group: to provide Houseless dignity, Understanding and empathy, Generosity, and Soul and smiles.

“We noticed that people were asking for very specific things, stuff that would make them happy,” said Davis, a poet studying creative writing at ASU. “That’s the biggest portion of this project, trying to bring these little items to people to bring them joy.”

Every week during deliveries of essential items, Davis asks people what he can get for them to bring them happiness, jotting down the specifics in his phone. These items are put on the AJJ website so volunteers and donors can buy items such as a “duffel bag for Robert” and a “wagon for James,” both of which the site currently features. The items are mailed to the AJJ office and then are distributed.

“When you're living on the streets and your first priority is survival, I think that these little things to ease your mental health are just so incredibly valuable,” said Davis.

With requests of specific clothing items in different sizes, AZ Hugs for the Houseless partnered with ASU Project Humanities during mid-summer 2020. The Project Humanities partnership has allowed AZ Hugs for the Houseless to provide clothing, blankets and sleeping bags to the homeless community.

“Project Humanities has been such a blessing,” Davis said. “I’m super blessed and grateful to be partners with them because they really allow us to get these specific clothing items to those in need.”

As a poet, Davis has seen numerous unsheltered artists including rappers, poets, storytellers and writers living on the streets. Davis says he struggles with his own mental health and finds his writing to be therapeutic. He has a long-term goal of providing art supplies through AZ Hugs for the Houseless.

“Creating art for me is therapy; I can only imagine that for someone on the streets who is already struggling with their mental health, along with the daily task of survival — not being able to create your art, I can’t even really imagine that. It just seems so difficult,” Davis said. “Some of the most creative people that I’ve ever met are sleeping on the streets at night.”

For the past year, AZ Hugs for the Houseless — which is open to all community members — has been growing in terms of the number of volunteers and the donations the organization receives.

Currently, AZ Hugs for the Houseless has a donation drop box in the Digital Creative Studio, part of the Sparky’s Den area of the basement of the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. ASU community members are encouraged to donate any items they are able to. Additionally, Davis has a growing list of volunteers who go with him on daily deliveries in the greater Phoenix area.

“I encourage anyone and everyone, if you want to, get involved if you can,” Davis said. “If you want to get involved in this project, there’s a place for you. I hope more people want to get involved because collaboration is the key to progression.”

AZ Hugs for the Houseless was created with the goal of providing care and friendship to those experiencing homelessness.

“In your day-to-day lives, if you see an unsheltered person, don’t look away,” Davis said.  “Smile at them, talk to them, have a conversation with them — because they’re human too.”

The ASU donation drop box is located in the Digital Creative Studio in the basement of the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. The hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays –Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays. Follow the group on Instagram @azhugs and @az_jews_for_justice

Donations accepted through the nonprofit Arizona Jews for Justice website. Small donations can be sent through Venmo to Austin Davis @austin-davis-399 or through PayPal @awdavis0214@gmail.com so that he is able to buy items such as tents, outerwear and food for those in need.

Top photo: Third-year creative writing student Austin Davis offers water and a sandwich to one of the men at the tent village near 12th Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Phoenix on Feb. 27. Davis spends part of most days delivering food and supplies as part of AZ Hugs for the Houseless. He frequently brings what the community provides — water, fruit, sandwiches, clothing and bedding, and sometimes special requests such as a pair of boots, radios or nice meals. He works in conjunction with Arizona Jews for Justice. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News