East Valley city at odds with nonprofit group over free picnics for unhoused people

Dec 22, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 8:39 am

AZ Hugs for the Houseless outdoor picnic events...

The non-profit regularly gave unhoused people food during its public picnic events. (AZ Hugs For the Houseless Photos)

(AZ Hugs For the Houseless Photos)

PHOENIX – Tempe leaders asked nonprofit AZ Hugs to pause its Sunday Family Picnic event, which gives people experiencing homelessness critical resources like food and connections to shelters.

The city’s request comes down to a safety concern. The public event, which is often held at a park near Mill Avenue and Curry Road, requires a “special needs permit” to continue, according to Tempe officials.

City leaders don’t want to outright shut down the picnic. They asked for a brief pause until AZ Hugs gets a permit, which could take two months at the least.

AZ Hugs Founder Austin Davis has no plans to stop the event. He believes it’s a key resource for unhoused people in the community.

“That’s not something we’re willing to give up,” Davis said. “Because I know for a fact how valuable and valid that picnic is for people and what it means for folk.”

However, he is working to comply with the city and has begun the process of getting the special permit.

What’s wrong with a picnic in a park?

The city’s concern is twofold. Firstly, there’s the safety concern associated with the event itself, which includes claims that needles and trash have been found in parks after the events.

Secondly, leaders worry that this type of aid prolongs homelessness.

Tempe’s Community Services Director Craig Hayton said “charity feeds” like the Sunday Family Picnic are becoming more commonplace as homelessness lingers as a regional problem.

“We’ve actually seen some concerns with increased traffic, increased trash in some of the parks. We found used syringes in some of the areas as well,” Hayton added, referring to areas that host charity feeds.

Tempe Interim Communication and Marketing Office Director Kris Baxter-Ging said this kind of help prolongs homelessness and causes people to avoid seeking long-term help.

“There’s evidence to show that when people are getting one-at-a-time services, they’re less likely to actually seek real services that provide long-term housing, long-term stability,” she said.

Baxter-Ging added that the city has seen about a 30% decrease in the number of people experiencing homelessness from last summer to June this year.

Davis doesn’t agree with their assessments. He said this notion of delaying long-term solutions doesn’t match up with what he sees on the streets. There’s a risk that people could die in the two months it may take to be compliant with city rules, he said.

“Helping someone feel a little happy for three hours, once a week, that’s not going to keep them from accepting services or keep them on the street,” Davis said. “That’s just absurd to suggest.”

He said he will have to pay $500 to get the permit. In addition to that, the city is also asking him to get liability insurance.

How to help AZ Hugs

The event is designed to be a safe space for people experiencing homelessness and food is always provided.

However, Davis said the food is secondary to the organization’s efforts to connect individuals with housing and other key services.

Tempe itself has a campaign called “Real change not spare change,” which is like The City of Phoenix’s “Healthy Giving” program.

These programs call for people who want to help those in need to donate to local nonprofits instead of giving money to people directly.

Tempe Public Information Officer Susie Steckner said nonprofits like this can make a world of difference.

“As part of healthy giving, we encourage people to join forces with nonprofits and established community groups that are working day in and day out to end their homelessness,” Steckner said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM asked Tempe officials if AZ Hugs counts as one of these groups people should donate to.

“The city encourages residents to keep giving from the heart to support organizations that help people end their homelessness,” a city statement said.

Teamwork makes the dream work

While Davis and the City of Tempe may be at odds over how to help, both sides see there is a clear problem and cooperation is needed to move forward.

“That takes big nonprofits, small nonprofits, community organizations, churches,” Davis said. “That takes everyone working together and coming together for one common goal.”

He also urges city leaders like Tempe Mayor Corey Woods to come see the event for themselves on a Sunday.

“I would love that,” he said. “That’s the whole point, get everyone mingling together, having a discussion, finding ways to push our community forward in a positive notion.”

While there’s no indication city leaders will do this, to say there’s “bad blood” between the two would be an unfair assessment.

“Austin and many other Tempe community members are very caring and compassionate and that’s one thing we love about the Tempe community and even the regional community,” Hayton said.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

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East Valley city at odds with nonprofit group over free picnics for unhoused people