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Human Services Campus in Phoenix gets helping hand from ASU students, faculty, supporters

November 01, 2013

Approaching the entrance to the Human Services Campus in central Phoenix, the gathered mass of people on the street provides a stark reminder of the vast need in our community.

“Homelessness is one of the toughest issues that we tackle,” says Cathy Eden, professor of practice in the School of Public Affairs, part of the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University. Yet, homelessness is a challenge that does have answers and ASU students, faculty and staff are eager to be part of the solution.

Coinciding with national Make a Difference Day on Saturday, Oct. 26, nearly 100 volunteers – students, faculty, staff and other supporters – turned out to be a part of that solution for the inaugural ASU College of Public Programs Community Service Day.

“Students from our college – whether in social work or the Public Allies program – work at this campus almost every day,” says Jonathan Koppell, dean of the College of Public Programs. “We are delighted to have more connection through this day of service, advancing this terrific enterprise.”

“The College of Public Programs – its schools, centers, students and faculty – exemplify the highest standards in community service. On many fronts, the Homeless Services Campus and the Community Garden clearly represent the commitment our students and faculty share with underserved populations. It is an honor for us to be involved with the important work being done here,” says Dale Larsen, director of community relations and professor of practice in the College of Public Programs.

As an event that unites all of the college's programs, it drew significant support to help across a number of fronts, from general cleanup to furthering efforts of a relatively new initiative: a community garden.

Making an idea a reality

Eden became involved with the campus as a board member. She found out that for nearly 10 years they had been talking about turning a blighted vacant lot, abandoned years ago, into a community garden. She stepped off the board and on to a planning committee to make that happen.  

“It was truly a team effort,” she says. “David Smith, the former Maricopa County Manager, had the vision and Ken Singh of Singh Farms is why this garden is in place. A group of about seven people led the effort, reaching out to tree farmers, seed growers and others – to great success."

Just over a year later, the thriving garden has produced five harvests. It is tended by a combination of the campus clients, church volunteers and others. Nearly everything is donated – including 40 trees that line the perimeter of the sizable area.

Food grown in the garden is used by the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room to feed the more than 700 people who come through on a daily basis.

Recently, small boxed plots have been added for campus clients to create their own gardens.

Doris, a campus client, proudly showed the group a healthy bunch of radishes that she had grown from seeds in her brightly colored garden. Doris noted that her mother was a gardener.

In addition to serving as a source of food, the garden is a training site for homeless men and women to gain skills in gardening and landscaping.

On pace to end homelessness

David Bridge, managing director of the Human Services Campus, says that the campus efforts are a collaboration of a number of agencies with a goal of ending homelessness. Government and nonprofit partners include Maricopa County, St. Vincent de Paul, Nova Safe Haven, Central Arizona Shelter Services, Lodestar Day Resource Center and St. Joseph the Worker.

“ASU is invested here,” he says. “It is an effort that brings together multiple colleges and schools, including the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Service. Together, we are on pace to end homelessness by 2020.”

An achievable goal? Bridge backs it up with statistics.

“Eighty percent of our clients come once and don’t come back. Economics is a strong contributing factor. With the right help, people who temporarily find themselves in a troubling situation quickly get back on their feet,” he says.

The average length of stay for this group is 40 days.

The remaining 20 percent falls in a group called the “chronic” homeless – for whom mental health, substance abuse, disabilities and other challenges complicate their ability to find solid ground. Bridge says that 60 percent of the dollars spent on individuals experiencing homelessness are attributed to this group.

“We have best practices models in place that have been proven to show that 90 percent of the people that we place in permanent housing never go back,” he notes.

Housing is just one thing – the permanent change includes helping people avoid multiple visits to emergency rooms and other costly resources just to get by.

There is a national goal to get the average stay of a person needing help to less than 20 days.

“We have the solutions, we just need to implement them,” Bridge says.

Transforming our community

Michelle Petraitis is part of the ASU Public Allies program, an initiative of the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation. The group engages young adults interested in social change and helps them build their expertise to become future leaders.

Petraitis worked in the natural foods retail sector but found that it wasn’t as fulfilling as she had hoped.

“Here I am able to put my interest in aiding people with food insecurity to work. I am helping people that actually need help,” she says.

Brenda Renou, an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in nonprofit leadership and management says she is active in numerous organizations on campus. She wanted to help attract collaborative support for the community service day effort.

Volunteers and clients gain from the expertise of Marina Acosta Ortiz, who is pursing her passion as a master gardener through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

“I help people learn both gardening and nutrition,” she says. “We aren’t just building a garden, we are building a community.”

Ortiz is part of the SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education), sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture to help improve nutrition among low-income individuals.

She notes an issue in that people who are homeless do not have a place to cook. “We hope to help people find the best foods to invest in healthy calories,” she says.

Chen-Yu Kao is a second-year doctoral student pursuing a degree in public administration at ASU. She says her research focuses on collaborative gardens. As an international student, Kao seeks to gain a better understanding of local community.

“I was shocked when I drove up. If you didn’t come here, you wouldn’t know about the great need,” she says. “This is a chance for me to be closer to the local community and see collaboration put into practice.”

“I saw this garden when it was absolutely nothing,” says Linda Hess, manager of Bob Ramsey Executive Education Program at ASU. “Now look. I love the whole theme.”

The impact of volunteering

Eden says that many who have found permanent housing through the resources provided at the campus continue to come back to volunteer in the garden.

“This is also a sanctuary, a quiet place for clients to escape,” she says. “Our efforts here are done with great pride and joy.”

“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” says Jerry Castro, food services manager, St. Vincent de Paul.

ASU’s College of Public Programs plans to make the effort a regular event, reaching out to organizations across the metropolitan Phoenix area that help make a difference in the community.

To learn more about the Human Services Campus, visit