PHOENIX, ARIZONA — Anyone walking into a Project Connect event in the Phoenix metro area can tell right away that something wonderful is happening. Volunteers are hard at work helping people experiencing homelessness access vital human services. Some volunteers are preparing and serving meals. Others are cutting hair, fixing bikes and distributing clothing. And hundreds more are serving as guides to the event’s guests as they traverse the myriad of service providers on hand.
In the midst of it all, lives are changing. And not just for the guests — the volunteers, too. Their eyes are opening, their hearts are filling up, and they are finding that they have a lot in common with the people they are helping.
That’s exactly what Valley of the Sun United Way hopes will happen at Project Connect events, which it coordinates seven times a year in partnership with churches and community organizations. The events are all about connecting the community with those experiencing homelessness and building a greater understanding of homelessness.
“Project Connect not only helps us serve a population in great need, but it also helps us build an army of people informed about homelessness,” said Krickette Wetherington, director of community impact for VSUW.
Many of the volunteers who participate in Project Connect come through the VSUW’s corporate partnerships and civic connections, but a good number come through JustServe.org — a free online clearinghouse created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that identifies nearby service opportunities.
“JustServe.org helps us make important connections to the faith community and to individuals who want to help,” said Wetherington. “It’s the way for us to have the whole world in that room — individuals, faith groups, business and corporate volunteers, civic leaders, lawmakers and our guests. It would not be possible without JustServe.”
Getting past stereotypes
Jenna Cobb is a JustServe volunteer who recently participated in a Project Connect event in Tempe, Arizona. She has been volunteering through JustServe.org since it was first introduced in the Phoenix area.
“Project Connect was a very positive experience for me,” said Cobb. “The people I connected with really helped me grow. They helped me be better.”
Cobb spent her day at Project Connect doing intake as the guests arrived. As she gathered information and conversed with them, she said she was impressed by how respectful and appreciative they were.
“We have so many stereotypes about people who are homeless. We will cross the street just to avoid them,” said Cobb. “But at Project Connect, for a moment, we were on equal ground, and it reminded me that we’re really all the same. We all have the same needs.”
Cobb found herself lifted by the people she served and was amazed at how much the event benefitted her personally.
“It was a long day, and I was exhausted, but I left feeling tremendous. You forget what’s wrong in your life when you help someone who is in a worse situation,” she said.
Homelessness on the rise
On any given day, some 6,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County, Arizona. Many of these people find relief in shelters, but many do not.
Since 2014, the county’s unsheltered homeless rate has risen 25 percent, largely because of an affordable housing crisis in the area: There are only 20 affordable housing units for every 100 families facing homelessness. And while Phoenix has the fifth highest eviction rate in the country, many people who are now homeless have not been evicted. Their landlords simply have not renewed their leases, making space for people who can pay higher rents. At the same time, the county lacks sufficient permanent supportive housing for people with physical and intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses.
These conditions have strained the county’s ability to respond. Shelters are full, and people are staying in them longer, making it difficult for unsheltered people to access vital services, which are shelter-based.
As a result, Project Connect — which began nine years ago to serve the unsheltered homeless population and serves more than 4,000 people each year — is more important than ever.
“Project Connect brings all the services and resources to one place,” explained Wetherington. “We are there for one day, and we bring in as many people as we can.”
Guests can enjoy two meals, take a shower, pick out new clothes, get a haircut or beard trim, see a medical professional, apply for a birth certificate or ID card, get a new bike or get one fixed, find supplies for their pets, apply for housing and food assistance, and so on. They also get personal, individualized care and attention from a guest guide.
“The number one thing — the most important service — is that interaction with the guest guide,” said Wetherington. “When people are experiencing scarcity, they cannot evaluate and make decisions well. The guest guide helps them prioritize their needs and accomplish what needs to be done.”
Guest guides provide an invaluable service, ministering with a human touch that helps the guests get the most out of their day at Project Connect, but the guides also gain an invaluable perspective on homelessness, fulfilling another purpose of the event.
“That one-on-one experience with a guest changes everything for our guides — how they view the homeless and what they understand about homelessness,” said Wetherington. “They can’t unsee homelessness anymore.”
‘A change of heart’
Doug Hubbard is big on self-reliance. He volunteers regularly at a drug rehab center, and for the guys he works with, there are no excuses — “Shape up, clean up, get off the couch and get a job.”
That was his attitude coming into Project Connect, but after spending the day as a guest guide to a woman experiencing homelessness, he left with an entirely different perspective. He expressed that the experience opened his eyes to their challenges, but also to their efforts to manage the life they have.
“Our responsibility is to share what we can and help them have the best life they are capable of living,” he said, noting how grateful he is for the opportunities he’s found through JustServe.org to understand the challenges other people face. “I had no idea about any of this. It was truly a change of heart. And it was good for me.”
Partnering with the faith community
In June 2018, three stakes joined together to host a Project Connect event at Mesa’s Inter-Stake Center. Randy Thomas, the JustServe specialist for the Mesa Arizona Mountain View Stake, led the effort and served as the liaison to the United Way.
“We spent several months preparing, and it was great to see how many people wanted to help,” said Thomas. “It built my testimony of the saints and their willingness to serve.”
The three stakes organized a clothing drive and collected bikes, enlisted bike technicians and barbers, assembled backpacks with hygiene kits and snacks, planned and prepared meals, and coordinated with the United Way to host over 30 different service providers. When the day finally came, there wasn’t an empty room in the whole building. People were everywhere, serving diligently in so many different ways.
Thomas was amazed and humbled to see it all come together and couldn’t hold back his emotions as he saw this work of temporal salvation unfolding.
“It was sanctifying work. These were all God’s children and they just needed a little help,” said Thomas. “Our members were in tears because they were walking in the Savior’s shoes and they felt the love He has for each one of the people there.”
‘They wanted to feel normal again’
John Horne is a barber, and he knows that everyone likes a good haircut — whether you are homeless or not. So when he saw the opportunity to help at Project Connect, he volunteered right away. At the event, he and two other hair stylists were busy for hours cutting hair and trimming beards.
“They were just regular people who wanted to feel normal again,” said Horne. “After I cut their hair and trimmed their beards off, they felt better about themselves. It felt good to do that. ... It’s really nice to make people happy.”
Horne said he loved the opportunity to do good for others and would absolutely do Project Connect again. “It’s my way to serve the Lord.”
Being more like the Savior
Sister Kalina Stokes, a missionary serving in the Tempe Arizona Mission and a participant in a recent Project Connect event hosted by the Tempe Arizona West Stake, was heartened to see members of the Church working alongside others in the community to serve people experiencing homelessness. For her, the whole event was a way to grow in charity and empathy and to serve more like our Savior did.
“If we truly want to exemplify the Savior, we need to serve as He did,” said Sister Stokes. “And He wouldn’t just serve in the ward or stake or branch. He would be out working in the community, with people different from Him, for people from all walks of life.”
That’s what makes JustServe.org such a valuable resource for members.
“On JustServe.org, people can find thousands of opportunities to do the same thing we did anytime,” said Thomas. “JustServe helps people make that leap, and when they do make that leap, their experiences are life-changing.”
Hubbard is a living witness of that. His service outside the Church to people in the most dire of circumstances has been more rewarding than he ever imagined. “I’m 63 years old, and I’ve been serving in the Church since I was old enough to do it, and I’ll tell you, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
For information on local service projects, go to JustServe.org.