AZCentral.com | 12:38 p.m. MST July 25, 2014
Submitted by Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of community impact for Valley of the Sun United Way.
On any given day, thousands of individuals and families experience homelessness in Maricopa County. An estimated 17 percent are chronically homeless, have lived on the streets more than a year and have a disability.
In 2010, Tempe, in partnership with United Way, became the first local municipality to launch a permanent supportive housing pilot program to help chronically homeless individuals move off the streets. With the support of the Arizona Department of Health Services and other partners, 35 chronically homeless individuals were connected with permanent supportive housing in Tempe.
Once in housing, tenants receive the necessary medical, social, emotional and physical help they needed to stabilize their lives. One of these residents working to change her life is Chris, who recently shared her story.
At 21, Chris moved to Arizona to earn an interior-design degree. Several years later, she'd finished undergraduate requirements but couldn't save enough for her bachelor's degree.
During this time, Chris was unable to find full-time work. Burdened with expensive recurring health issues, Chris got behind on rent and was evicted. Unable to save enough for a deposit and first month's rent, Chris was forced to live on the streets.
But Chris is a fighter. Although she slept on the streets at night, was assaulted and had to pay $3 to shower each day, Chris continued working during the day and refused to give up.
After more than 18 months on the streets, she got a break. Chris moved into permanent supportive housing in Tempe, and that is how we first met.
"In life we don't get do-overs," Chris said. "But I thought, this could be my new beginning."
As a resident of the pilot program, Chris was immediately treated for multiple serious medical issues. As she regained her strength, she began looking outside herself and started volunteering at United Way's Project Connect.
Project Connect is a one-day outreach event where the organizations that provide vital services come together under one roof. Members of the community experiencing and at-risk of homelessness can attend and find the tools and resources they need to solve issues.
On the streets Chris stayed away from people to survive, but at Project Connect, she is comfortable among the many strangers, feeling like she has a purpose guiding others to vital support and resources.
Three years later, scholarships and school are in Chris' bright future.
"I finally feel like I'm starting to be me again,"she told me.
To join Chris and hundreds of other volunteers at next month's Project Connect in Glendale, visit vsuw.org/volunteer. That event is on Tuesday, Aug. 12, at Glendale Nazarene Church, 5902 W. Cactus Road.