By ROBYN ZELICKSON
Homelessness remains a pervasive problem in America. The Tucson/Pima Coalition to End Homelessness reported 1,762 homeless people in January 2016. Of those, 281 were veterans. The 2017 count has just been completed and results are being tabulated.
We may ask, what can we do to help end homelessness? Pima Community College student Garrett Encinas began to answer that question with his Honors-inspired project, Homeless Care Package Drive.
The project puts together backpacks filled with products for the homeless. Donation boxes are located on each campus. East Campus has a box in the library and all other campuses have a box in the Student Life office.
“It’s that little spark of hope, that little tiny glimmer of light, that’s kind of the driving force,” Encinas said. “Even if just one person can benefit, that would be really awesome.”
He was motivated by an emotional incident last year in Reid Park. He noticed an obviously homeless man with a hole in his pants. Encinas gave the man a new pair of pants from one of the backpacks.
Encinas also took out some sunscreen and Chapstick. At that moment, the man began to cry.
“That was when I realized the significance of the impact for some of the people that we are helping,” Encinas said. “Most people just walk by them or don’t know what to do and so they just do nothing.”
The Homeless Care Package Drive is working on getting a tax number so volunteers can solicit donations from businesses as well. This would expand the project into the community.
“All of Texas Roadhouse’s locations have a donation box and I’m hoping to find a way to get more publicity out so that people really can see that they have a way to help,” Encinas said.
Encinas’ sister Gabrielle “Gabby” Encinas is also an Honors student. She had to develop her own project.
While researching, Gabby Encinas found information on Pinterest about plastic yarn – plarn. She knew the material could help both the environment and the homeless.
Garrett Encinas explained how his sister uses plarn to make mats.
“Gabby takes plastic bags, cuts them into sheets and ties them together into balls that look like yarn,” he said. “She takes the plarn and weaves it into mats. She takes those mats, which are 3 foot by 3 foot, and puts two together to make a 6 foot by 3 foot mat.”
The mats are light, very portable and more comfortable to lie on than cement or dirt.
Gabby Encinas experimented to find the best technique.
“I actually started out crocheting the mats but I was advised to try weaving and it really sped up my process,” she said.
She can finish three full-size mats a month, if she stays motivated. Her goal is to make 30 mats by April 22 and 50 mats by the end of the semester.
Garrett Encinas said it’s been fun to work together as a family. They have another sister, Caitlin Encinas, who helps both of them by putting together backpacks and by weaving plarn.
Honors student Corinne Anderson will host a Resources Information Services and Education, or RISE, event as part of her project to serve homeless veterans and civilians on April 22 at the Downtown Campus Amethyst Room from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Volunteers will give out backpacks and plarn mats during the event. There will also be social services representatives available to provide assistance in various areas.
“So far we have several service organizations on board, and volunteer doctors nurses from Clinica Amistad,” Anderson said. “And we are adding new agencies every day.”
Most of the RISE and Homeless Care Package Drive volunteers attend classes at East Campus, and enjoy being part of a close-knit community.
Although the Honors Club is fairly small, larger organizations such as the Gamer’s Club provide volunteers for staffing tables to spread awareness, assembling backpacks and gathering donations.
“I think that community spirit is what has made this drive so successful,” Garrett Encinas said. “I can’t even imagine how much success we’d have if we could get the same community spirit at a big campus like West or Downtown.”
His goal is to expand the project in order to help more people. He wants to help both the homeless and the volunteers who work on the project.
“I want to give people the opportunity to feel empowered,” he said. “So that people can start their own project, see something that they can do or find their passion, which will have a domino effect, where Pima students can be making a difference in the world.”
A list of requested donation items is available at aztecpressonline.com. For further information on the Homeless Care Package Drive or RISE, contact East Campus Student Life by email at EC-StudentLife@ pima.edu or call 206-7616.