Handing Out Food Probably Isn't the Best Way to Help the Homeless in Phoenix

On a recent chilly Sunday morning in downtown Phoenix, the area around the Human Services Campus on Jackson Street looks like a carnival of sorts by 8:30 a.m. Hundreds of people walk around or poke their heads out of makeshift lean-to tents to chat with their friends or to see what the latest caravan of well-meaning people – many of whom wear Santa hats — is passing out.

A large car idles in the middle of the street while a young man and woman sitting in the trunk pass out brown paper bags and bottles of water. Nearby, another group is passing out sandwiches and hot chocolate served in small white Styrofoam cups. At the west end of the campus, a few adults with kids in tow carry laundry baskets full of sweets or blankets and winter clothes, passing them out to the line of people that's started to form.

Over the course of about 3.5 hours, New Times observed at least a dozen different groups pull up, pass something out, and leave. Some groups, like the one who never got out of the car, stay for a few minutes. Others set up card tables and serve more of a buffet-style meal.

"Merry Christmas."

"Happy holidays," people say as they pass out food and sweaters.

Maria Sotell, part of a group passing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from a car, says she comes down to do this "just to volunteer and to do something nice during the holidays."

But when people come and drop off bags and bags of clothes, or they come down and pass out cookies and sandwiches, Bridges explains, much of it ends up on the ground for employees of the campus to clean up Monday morning.

Asked about the garbage, Sotell looks out of her car window and says she's thought about coming to pick up trash.  To say the area around the campus is filthy would be an understatement. What few trashcans and dumpsters there are along the streets are overflowing. All over the sidewalk, you can see exploded ketchup packets, clementine peels, empty juice boxes, Styrofoam containers and cups, plastic bottles, used napkins and paper towels, and potato chip bags.

Surveying the scene, David Bridge, managing director of the Lodestar Day Resource Center, remarks that the so-called "street feeding" is a problem year-round, but is far, far worse on the weekends during the holiday season.

It creates unnecessary traffic – multiple people almost got hit by vehicles that morning – and people can get sick when food is mishandled, he says. But it also just reinforces the worst stereotypes people have about the homeless.

He motions to the garbage all over the street and sidewalks and the large groups of people congregating – many pushing shopping carts or holding plastic bags filled with belongings – and explains that these things hurt the image of the neighborhood and reflects poorly on the campus and the homeless men and women who rely on it for services.

"See that store down there," he continues, pointing to an abandoned looking building with "Library of Paints" painted on the front. It went out of business recently.

"It's hard to say this is why the store failed," he clarifies, "but this definitely didn't help."
Every year around holiday time, the city of Phoenix and homeless advocates at the campus ask people not to "street feed," though the message is often ignored by people who say they're just doing their part to give back.

"I've done this every holiday time for the past 11 years," says Vern Newton, who arrived with at least 20 volunteers around 10:30 a.m. and set up a long row of card tables to serve warm food from big hotel pans. "It's sad to see the city going against it."

Newton explains that he comes down here because he knows there's a need.

"I was homeless in Phoenix for about three months in 2000. I stayed on the streets and in alleys – I know firsthand how hard it is out here," he says. "Someone came and fed me in a park once, and I'll never forget it."

While the debate over street feeding usually centers around whether it perpetuates homelessness by providing incentives for people to remain homeless, the fact of the matter is, passing out food on the street near the campus might not be filling an actual need.

"They have good intentions, but the thing is, we've got plenty of food," says an older homeless man who asked to be identified by his first name, Ray.

"They got two square meals a day at St. Vincent de Paul, and Andre House serves dinner," he explains. "Yes, some people might need a little more, but they don't have to go to this extreme."  If people want to help, the people down here have plenty of other unmet needs, he says, citing a lack of laundry facilities as an example.

Bridge, who is standing nearby, chimes in that part of the reason so many people end up dumping their clothes on the ground is that they have no way to wash them.

"People take stuff, wear it down, and then throw it down," he says.

"We need a laundry house around here that we can use that doesn't cost an arm and a leg," Ray says. (It's pretty hard to get a job when you don't have regular access to clean clothes.)

Ray's also frustrated by all of the garbage, which he says he often picks up.

For the most part, he thinks people throw their trash on the ground either because they're lazy or because there aren't enough trashcans.

"But some of them are mentally not there and some of them are on stuff that shouldn't be out here," he adds.

Asked if he ever hears others talk about the garbage, he answer yes.

"They say just like I say, 'If we don't stop doing this, they're going to take this all away from us,'" he says, motioning to the Human Services Campus. "The answer is to start getting this shit cleaned." 
"It's terrible, the garbage," says Edward, a 22-year-old who is currently sleeping in the St. Vincent de Paul overflow shelter and asked that only his first name be used. "I hate being around it."

According to Bridge, there's been some talk about getting permission from the county to take over the old abandoned building and parking lot across the street – the former Men's Overflow Shelter and East Lot – and turning the area into some sort of one-stop-shop volunteer center. But the problem with that idea, he says, is that while it might make people feel good, it's probably not the best use of resources.

"I understand all churches have this idea of 'do unto others,' but when you're just out here handing your stuff out, you're not equals," he says, adding that while the area around the campus isn't necessarily unsafe, it's not the best place for children. (Anyone under 18 is actually not allowed on the campus for safety reasons.)

"I don't want to discourage people from getting involved. I would just ask that they find more strategic ways to get involved," he says. "And not just around the holiday season."

He describes a successful program implemented earlier this year by the city in which church groups were matched with and "adopted" a low-income family and brought them Thanksgiving dinner and other household items.

"It's so much more human and dignified," he says.

Bridge says that he understands that people are just trying to help, but that sometimes the first step is not assuming you know what people need.

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser