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AZ Hugs founder vows to continue picnics for homeless despite Tempe permit denial

By Sadie Buggle/Cronkite News
Published: Sunday, February 18, 2024 - 8:05am
Updated: Thursday, April 4, 2024 - 5:10pm

People sit under a ramada
Austin Davis
Unhoused community members gather with AZ Hugs for the Houseless volunteers and others for a picnic on Dec. 17, 2023.

Despite the city of Tempe recently denying a special event permit for nonprofit AZ Hugs for the Houseless, the founder, Austin Davis, says the organization’s weekly Sunday picnics that work to provide food and resources to the city’s unhoused population won’t stop.

AZ Hugs for the Houseless is a nonprofit dedicated to providing resources like food, water and connection to shelters and detox facilities to the unhoused community.

The ruling came after the city asked Davis to apply for a permit in order to continue holding the organization’s weekly Sunday Family Picnic event, which he said he started hosting three years prior at various parks around the city.

But after Davis applied in December, he said he was informed that the wait for the permit’s approval could take at least 60 days. He decided to continue hosting the events at various parks in Tempe in the meantime.

“It wasn’t a hard decision. It was the morally right thing to do,” Davis said. “This is about making sure people have access to food and standing our ground for our most vulnerable neighbors, but it’s also about fighting for basic human rights for the homeless population.”

According to the city, AZ Hugs’ continuation of the unpermitted picnics during the permit application review process played a part in the decision to deny the permit, as well as safety concerns for nearby residents.

“While City of Tempe staff has met with the group in hopes of finding compassionate solutions, AZ Hugs continues to violate City Code 5-2 by holding unpermitted food events,” a statement from the city read. “This is in repeated defiance of numerous written and verbal notifications about the need for a permit.”

A special event fee is $100 with additional fees for event spaces. The denial means the group will be unable to reapply for a permit to host an event in Tempe for a year.

Community complaints

Austin Davis Loads Up Supplies in a wagon
Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
Austin Davis is an ASU student and member of Arizona Jews For Justice, a Valley nonprofit. He makes weekly trips to "The Zone" to hand out water and sanitary packets in 2020.

The city said the Sunday events have been a source of complaints from nearby residents, with an increase in “trash and drug paraphernalia” in the parks where the events take place, claims that AZ Hugs “vehemently denies.”

“Several residents asked city leadership at the Jan. 11 City Council meeting to address unsanctioned special events in parks, citing safety concerns, excessive trash, hazards such as hypodermic needles, improper use of ramadas, environmental impacts and conflicts with properly permitted events,” the city’s statement said.

Davis said he never had residents reach out to him or take issue with the events before the city’s denial. One of the most recent picnics began with a community cleanup led by volunteers and unhoused individuals, in which Davis said no drug paraphernalia was found.

“Not only was (the cleanup event) showing the community like, ‘Hey, we care about this space and about the wider community,’ but it also gave those experiencing homelessness an option and an opportunity to step up and be like, ‘I care about this, and this is how I’m going to make a difference,’” Davis said.

The Sunday Family Picnics, which draw an average of 150 people, go beyond providing individuals with necessities such as food and water, connecting vulnerable community members to detox programs, rehabilitation facilities, shelter and transportation, according to Davis.

“The food and the drinks and blankets and the clothes, that’s just the surface level of it,” Davis said. “That’s what helps create an environment that feels comfortable and safe for folks to build that trust, and that’s when people start to open up about their issues and start to think critically about ‘OK, what are my next action steps forward?’”

'You can’t just give up on people'

People get items out of the back of a vehicle
Austin Davis
AZ Hugs for the Houseless volunteers unload food and supplies from cars for a Sunday Family Picnic event on Dec. 24, 2023.

Frankie Brown, a person experiencing homelessness who often attends AZ Hugs gatherings, expressed how much the organization and Davis had helped him beyond simply providing supplies, assisting him with making connections that were “life-changing” for him.

“When I found myself homeless, they (AZ Hugs) helped me see that there’s more than one option to stay away from the bad crowd and more than one way to see a better day. He (Davis) has got resources that nobody else can really pull together that I know of,” Brown said.

Each Sunday, Davis says there are usually about three to five people who ask for or accept detox or rehab placement and a handful of others that he is able to begin the conversation with, a point in the process he called “critical.”

“The city seems to not recognize that, you know, it’s not always the first time you meet someone and you offer them services that they’re going to accept. It’s a process. You can’t just give up on people,” he said.

Tempe’s response to these events has left some experiencing homelessness feeling abandoned and angry at the city’s lack of other assistance.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Erica Harper, who has experienced homelessness in Tempe for 10 years and regularly attends AZ Hugs events. “They’re more than actively not helping, they’re actively antagonistic. It’s not that they don’t care. They care — just that we’re gone.”

“It’s disappointing and surprising because we’re supposed to be a progressive city,” Davis said. “I think that, as a community, we need to have a collective discussion about next steps forward because I really don’t think that what we’re doing is the biggest crime in the city of Tempe.”

In its statement on the denial, Tempe said it “admires the compassion that goes into helping people who are unsheltered, but charitable food events must follow the same rules as other Tempe events open to the public.”

“No person or organization is above city code, regardless of the type of event being held,” said Greg Ruiz, interim deputy city manager over Community Health and Human Services, Tempe Police and Tempe Fire Medical Rescue, in the statement.

'We’re going to fight for it'

Volunteers pass out items
Austin Davis
Volunteers put out food on picnic tables in Papago Park in preparation for an AZ Hugs for the Houseless Sunday Family Picnic on Feb. 4, 2024.

It said the city has helped one group move its “charitable food event” from a park to private property, and that another organization halted similar events while it waited for the city to process its permit request. City staff have met with AZ Hugs “in hopes of finding compassionate solutions,” the statement said, but the organization has continued to operate without a permit.

Davis has no plans to stop the event. On Feb. 2, AZ Hugs filed a motion for the city to reconsider its decision.

AZ Hugs would like to collaborate with the city on these picnics in the future, Davis said. He wishes that city-funded outreach programs would take advantage of the gatherings to talk to the unhoused community about resources offered by the city.

Tempe’s homeless outreach includes the city-funded Homeless Outreach Prevention Effort (HOPE) team, a group that assists with case management and connecting individuals to shelter and housing. The HOPE team also assists those experiencing homelessness with obtaining valid identification and gaining access to basic necessities, emergency shelter and employment resources.

“My goal and AZ Hugs’ goal is not to alienate or push away our city leaders. We want to work with the city, but we’ve got to stay true to what our community needs. It’s all about the people and what the people want and need, and this is what people want and need,” Davis said. “We’re going to fight for it and stand our ground, but we would love to incorporate the city in our next steps as well if they’re willing to meet us halfway.”

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