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Humanity on wheels

City of Tempe, ASU partner on 'Jenny’s Trailer' to provide space for homeless individuals to cool off during summer

Two people stepping out of yellow trailer

June 30, 2022

As soon as the white Chevy pickup truck hauling a 20-foot yellow travel trailer wound its way into the parking lot of the city of Tempe’s Daley Park, Kennan Parrish knew he was among friends.

He could cool off, have a drink of water, watch television, charge up his smartphone and experience a touch of humanity. The latter is important to Parrish, who has been homeless for the last two months after a series of unfortunate circumstances, including the death of his longtime partner and getting evicted from his apartment.

“It’s amazing what I’ve learned about being on the street these past two months, but if I could survive my mother-in-law for 34 years, I can get through this,” said the 56-year-old on June 22, a day that featured triple-digit heat throughout the Valley. “Even though we’re homeless, we still have a heart and we still have something to offer. ... This trailer is phenomenal.”

Parrish is referring to Jenny’s Trailer, a new mobile cooling center that is a welcome respite and serves as a place of shelter from the brutal summer heat. It is a collaborative project in partnership with Tempe’s Homeless Outreach Prevention Effort (HOPE) and Arizona State University’s Healthy Urban Environments initiative, which designed the sustainable, solar-paneled trailer.

Staffed by the city of Tempe, the HOPE team travels around city parks and other locations each Wednesday for two hours, offering a safe, comfortable place to cool off and receive cold bottled water. The trailer is a place for people to connect to housing and social services offered by Tempe. It also offers the “milk of human coolness” to a segment of people who are often ignored by society.

“Many of us go about our daily lives and we forget about our unsheltered population, right?” said Geno Morris, who has been a homeless outreach specialist for Tempe for three years and has more than a decade of experience working with homeless individuals. “As we go about our lives, we get in and out of our air-conditioned cars and we go home to our air conditioning. We think, ‘Oh man, it’s so hot,’ and we forget about the individuals who don’t have a home and don’t have a place to cool off.”

In addition to Jenny’s Trailer, Tempe has seven city and community heat relief locations, as well as two sites available on excessive-heat-warning days. The centers offer a place for all residents in need, sheltered and unsheltered, to cool off, hydrate and access services as needed.  

Morris said Jenny’s Trailer allows him to develop a special bond with individuals and families experiencing homelessness, who aren’t so quick to trust. During the June 22 visit at Daley Park, some went inside to cool off while others approached slowly. A few grabbed a bottle of water from an ice chest outside the door but never ventured inside.

Parrish said being homeless trains you to sleep with one eye open and to be wary of others until you know their true intent.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with on the street or what their motives are,” said Parrish, who has already witnessed several overdoses and suicides and has experienced theft. “When I step inside and talk with that gentleman (Morris), I feel like I’m talking to an old friend. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘How’s your day going?’ That means a lot, especially to people who have no one.”

Luckily for Jamie Brenzo, she has someone — her husband Noah. She said they are saving money so that he can test for his Department of Transportation card, something the city is helping him obtain. However, until he is back working full time, they remain homeless.

Brenzo, who hails from Nebraska, was one of about a dozen people in Daley Park who cooled down inside Jenny’s Trailer. Before entering, she grabbed a few extra bottles of water to stay hydrated.

“From opening the door to walking inside the trailer, you can feel the air coming off,” she said, closing her eyes, allowing the breeze to hit her face. “The fact that I can go in, charge my phone and watch a movie is pretty amazing.”

Jenny’s Trailer was named for ASU alumna Jenny Norton, a community advocate for those who are homeless. She funded the project in 2021 with a generous $15,000 donation. According to former Tempe councilmember Lauren Kuby, Norton was inspired to support the mobile cooling center by fond childhood memories of growing up in a South Phoenix trailer park. Schoolmates would often gather at “Jenny’s trailer” to enjoy the park’s common area and pool.

“Jenny Norton is not only a philanthropist but an activist, a humanitarian, and she’s a civil rights pioneer in our state and city, and a former representative,” said Kuby, who is a program manager for ASU’s Stardust Center for Affordable Homes and the Family in the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation. “Jenny was also the first person to own an electric car in the state of Arizona, way back in the 1970s.”

Because of Norton’s affinity for sustainability, something she knew she shared with ASU, Norton wanted the university to get on board. That’s when she enlisted the help of ASU’s Healthy Urban EnvironmentsHealthy Urban Environments is a collaborative initiative that combines the power of Arizona State University’s entrepreneurship, research and innovation infrastructure with partnership, support and collaboration from Maricopa County and its communities. initiative, which has partnered with the cities of Phoenix and Tempe on a number of projects to combat urban heat, including finding materials to cool streets, pavement and bus shelters.

Last September, Healthy Urban Environments recruited Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) — a team of students who solve engineering-based problems for charities, schools and other not-for-profit organizations — on the interior design elements for the trailer.

While Parrish is thankful that Jenny’s Trailer will continue to make its weekly runs, he’s hoping that he doesn’t have to see it again anytime soon. Tempe is working to find him permanent housing.

“This little trailer’s going to save a lot of lives,” he said. “And that’s so important, because everybody matters.”

Top photo: Raymond Edmonds and Jamie Brunzo leave Jenny’s Trailer on June 22 at Daley Park. The trailer was designed in part by ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering and receives assistance from the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation and its Healthy Urban Environments initiative. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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