“Be the change you want to see in the world” –Mahatma Gandhi

The scholars seated in a play area at the CASS Vista Colina shelter facility, as they discuss the concept of "home"

For anyone visiting the city of Phoenix, the site of homeless people is guaranteed. You can see them on the light rail, sleeping on the bus stop benches and with their carts under the shade of large empty buildings. The coronavirus pandemic and economic hardship have made the situation much worse. According to reports, many homeless individuals and families are suffering, fighting addiction and mental illness, always searching for places to shower and sleep. As journalists and academicians from diverse cultural backgrounds, it’s a unique opportunity to learn about and discover the homelessness problem in the United State and have a discussion about it regarding our own contexts. This could be one reason why our SUSI program director at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication planned for us to visit Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), which is the largest and longest serving homeless emergency shelter provider in the state.

On our way to CASS, I was trying to conceptualize home and homelessness, which seems difficult. It is true that for some of us when we think about home, we have a beautiful place in mind, filled with the  people we connect with. Home could be a peaceful physical place to escape from the world. It might be a wonderful environment that makes us happy a lot of the time. It might be a meaningful situation. Home could be the place where we feel in control. Robert Frost describes home as, “The place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” but where is home for the people who are deprived of this feeling?

During the 15-minute drive to the shelter, I spotted many homeless people sleeping in the street and in tents. I could feel their suffering, but I was keen to know their stories and their perspective about home. The only opportunity for me and my fellow SUSI scholars was to have a tour and meet Ashley DePrato, a CASS shelter manager, to tell us more about this critical issue in the state of Arizona and how their shelter is tackling it.

Ashley DePrato and the scholars in an empty unit under renovation
Ashley DePrato showed the scholars an empty unit under renovation and answered their questions

Founded over 35 years ago, CASS is the largest serving homeless emergency shelter provider in Arizona. As Ms. DePrato explained, the Vista Colina facility we visited is for families experiencing homelessness (CASS also operates a facility on the downtown Human Services Campus for single adults). The Vista Colina shelter is a 30-unit complex that includes apartments, a food pantry, playgrounds, educational space, computer labs which are all donated by individuals and donor organizations. The shelter has space for up to 36 families, but only 11 families currently live there due to ongoing renovations. CASS’s main goal is to provide families with a warm and safe environment. The shelter helps people transform their lives, get a roof over their head, a job, and an opportunity at a new life which is “tough work” as Ms. DePrato said. 

During this visit we all had a chance to share our feeling about being away from home; it seems that we are all homesick. After spending  a productive day understanding the burning problem of homelessness the day ended with more discussion and discourse about possible solutions accompanied with delicious pizza, which motivated us to continue thinking about this problem not only in the U.S. but across the world.

A shelf of toy people and cars
Toy people and cars arranged on shelves at the Vista Colina shelter

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