Weathered faces. Downcast eyes. Countenances that reflect hopelessness. They are the forgotten ones, the people left behind as the rest of the world moves toward the celebration of Christmas.
And just as the Holy Family was turned away from the inns of Bethlehem that long ago night, those who experience homelessness often have nowhere to lay their head.
Fr. Dan Ponisciak, CSC, executive director of André House, a ministry in Phoenix that feeds, clothes and shelters the homeless, knows their plight well. André House serves between 550-650 meals to the homeless and poor six nights a week.
For two years now, the ministry has been seeking approval for a 500-bed shelter.
“We have a humanitarian crisis in our neighborhood where every night, 500 people can’t get into shelter and have to sleep outside,” Fr. Ponisciak said. Since January 2019, that crisis has led to 837 people dying on the streets of Phoenix. If André House’s request for expansion is approved, he’s convinced lives will be saved.
Many of those who died succumbed to the record-shattering heat that seared Phoenix this summer. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public buildings like libraries were not available for the people to cool off. Even at André House, meals had to be served outdoors.
When the ministry began 15 years ago, the city of Phoenix approved 425 beds. The request to increase capacity has met with some opposition from neighborhood groups who say they fear the additional beds will draw even more homeless individuals to their area.
Michael Nowakowski, the Phoenix City council member from District 7 in which André House is located, has had the hearing on the expansion delayed twice.
“We’ve had countless meetings,” Fr. Ponisciak says of the neighborhood groups in the area. “We are slated for a Jan. 7 with the Village Planning Commission and the hope is that we would go directly to the city council for the final step Feb. 3.”
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In spite of more than 20,000 signatures on a petition and nearly 400 letters of support, there are those who say the additional beds will make the area a “dumping ground” for the homeless. Fr. Ponisciak doesn’t see it that way. The homeless individual, just like every other human person, has an inherent dignity bestowed on him by God. The plight of the homeless on the streets of Phoenix is a pro-life issue, he says.
“This is absolutely a matter of life and death,” Fr. Ponisciak says. Some of those who have died on the streets are familiar to him. Every six weeks, he’s the clergyman who presides at the burial of the homeless and indigent at White Tank Cemetery near Goodyear.
“I’ll read the names and I know exactly who they are,” he says. “I feel like I am banging my head against the wall,” he says of the wrangling with the city. “It makes you question whether or not those lives could have been saved.”
Even if the city approves the expansion of André House, those 500 beds won’t be available for another year. “We have the money to renovate,” Fr. Ponisciak says, but he doesn’t want to begin the project until the city approves it.
So what’s the one thing he wishes people knew about the homeless?
“Try not to assume things,” Fr. Ponisciak said. “Lots of people like to assume they are on drugs or choosing to be homeless.
“We have families that are on the streets — I’ve put families with little kids into hotels. It’s normal people. It could be your mother, father, sister or brother. It’s normal people who are just suffering.”
Ash Uss, advocacy and partnerships coordinator for André House, says opposition to adding beds has been discouraging at times.
“Where is everyone’s compassion?” she asks. “The question I ask people, especially the council members, is, ‘If this was your aunt or your brother or your child who needed a bed, how would you feel if we said, well, we have room, and we have people who want to help you but we don’t have a permit—just imagine if that was your family member?’”
The delay in adding the additional beds, Uss says, has also propelled her. “When I think about the fact that if people’s self-interest or political reasons hadn’t delayed this case and we could have sheltered more people — there is a fire burning in me that is ready to see this through. I am more motivated than ever.”
Fr. Ponisciak urges Arizonans to contact the governor and let him know of their support for André House’s expansion. Those who reside in Phoenix are asked to contact their city council member to express support of the increase in beds.