There are over 400 residents at Tucson House, the city’s largest public housing community, but only 20 are of school age.
This realization changed the way Tucson House does business, thanks to a student who worked there this summer as part of an Arizona State University social services program.
When parents searching for backpacks and other items from the low-income residence’s donation stash ran empty, Marisol Peralta sprang into action, rallying the community to ensure that students residents had what they needed for the new school year.
The staff and volunteers are now attentive to the specific needs of the young residents they serve, who have recently arrived, because the clientele of the housing site has changed somewhat.
These days, children and teens are no longer an afterthought at Tucson House, but rather a celebrated part of the community, with plans to create a space just for them, as well as programs and activities to amplify their voice.
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“To see that relief…was just awesome”
Peralta, an ASU student who wants to become a school social worker after graduating, said she’s always been interested in helping children. She was hoping for an opportunity when she started working at Tucson House in May through ASU’s Tucson Community Access, Referral and Education Services for Health program.
“It’s always been my thing, standing up for kids and just being there for them, giving them a voice and supporting them in any way I can,” Peralta said.
With only a small percentage of residents in that age group, she wasn’t sure the opportunity would present itself.
But when parents started coming for back-to-school supplies, Peralta got a chance. She asked Denise Lopez, who oversees operations at Tucson House, where she could find supplies.
“She said it was going to be my job and if I wanted the stuff, I would have to find my own resources,” Peralta said. “So I started calling local businesses and places.”
Peralta discovered that many organizations were already participating in back-to-school campaigns and had no supplies to spare, so she asked her supervisors at ASU for help.
The school shared its donation campaign flyer on social media, and Peralta hit the sidewalk, posting it around the city and on ASU’s Tucson campus. She made phone calls asking for donations and visited two businesses in person, finding help in various locations.
“A girl who does eyelashes and has another business had a box full of supplies for me, and I was put in touch with someone in Pima County,” Peralta said.
The El Rio Community Health Center’s Reproductive Health Access Project and the Tucson Diaper Bank provided menstrual kits for girls, and the Tucson Fire Department’s TC3 program pledged to provide ongoing supplies, including toys, pens, markers and crayons, to Tucson House’s growing child and teen population.
When Peralta gathered all the supplies, including backpacks, binders, writing materials and any other items on the students’ back-to-school supply list, she assembled a pack for each child, personalized in depending on their gender and age. From there came the best part: delivering the packs to their new owners.
“To see that relief, largely from the parents, when we gave them the backpack and said it was full of stuff, was just awesome,” Peralta said. “And most children were given a bag of hygiene supplies, depending on their age.”
As an unexpected bonus, Peralta continued to receive calls from people wanting to donate, even after the fundraiser ended and the school year started. Lopez now keeps a stock of school supplies and other items for young residents in her office, ready for any youngsters who come to her.
The ASU program aims to address inequities in health and well-being at Tucson House. The program works in conjunction with the University of Arizona’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, with teams performing onsite health and wellness assessments to identify unmet mental and physical health needs.
‘Respond quickly with our amazing contacts’
Additionally, Tucson CARES employees connect residents to services and resources. They also work with community partners to bring services and activities to Tucson House, including healthy food demonstrations and pet vaccination clinics.
Tucson CARES was created after community members expressed the need for such help and ultimately called for on-site assistance.
The grant-funded program is in its final year and pays for student employees to spend two to three days a week embedded in an office at Tucson House. Students from UA’s Department of Family and Community Medicine handle physical health assessments, while ASU students cover social service and mental health needs, said program coordinator Bob Purvis.
Their services run the gamut from food assistance and eviction prevention to reading to people with sight problems or who are illiterate, Purvis said.
In its first year, Tucson CARES referred nearly 700 residents to various service providers, including 120 residents as repeat clients.
The program is run by Purvis and two part-time students.
“If we could get additional funding at Tucson House, we could expand into public housing in other locations” and expand the workforce, Purvis said.
Tucson CARES is an initiative of ASU’s Office of Community Health and Resilience. Its creation was spurred by COVID, as workers initially partnered with the AU and the Pima County Health Department for one of the first door-to-door vaccine deployments.
“That’s how they say how we could fill that gap,” Purvis said. “And to make an impact at Tucson House. You’re not going to find a more impactful place. We bring things to the spot and break down barriers to service like transportation and lack of mobility.”
The program also fills a need for students seeking real-world experience working with special populations, but also attracts students with prior real-world experience in their own specialties.
Tucson CARES student worker Zoe Somerville also showed initiative by organizing a drive to collect warm clothes and blankets for residents, Purvis said. A former employee of the YWCA of Southern Arizona, Somerville tapped into her connections and secured the group as a community partner in the campaign, collecting 1,500 pieces of clothing and 250 blankets.
“That’s what the program is all about: seeing the needs presented by residents and responding quickly with our amazing contacts,” Purvis said.
“You never know what people are going through”
Tucson House was acquired by the city in 1979 and converted into public housing for the elderly and those with physical and medical challenges.
But during the early years of the COVID pandemic, the city began moving homeless people into the skyscraper, which continues to be used — along with the nearby Wildcat Inn — as transitional housing for people who were previously homeless. Both properties are located on North Oracle Road, between West Drachman Street and West Grant Road.
Along with the new types of residents also came children and teenagers living with their adult families.
“I really haven’t paid much attention to the kids, because you don’t see them and they don’t fight back,” said Lopez, who oversees operations at Tucson House as project coordinator of community services for housing and the city community. Development. “When most of my people need something, they come into the office and pick me up. But they’re kids, so I really don’t see them.”
When Peralta told Lopez about her desire to help the children of Tucson House prepare for the school year, Lopez said it was an easy “yes.”
The challenge was getting parents to admit they needed help, as many don’t want to appear to lack it.
“You really have to lean in sometimes and you have to kind of prove yourself and earn that trust to be able to have that conversation,” Lopez said.
She had the conversations and was able to put together a list of students and supplies needed. Lopez also reached out to her connections, gathering supplies from the Tucson Fire Department and arranging for donations of menstrual products. Her friends also contributed, providing body sprays, lip glosses and more.
“These are little luxuries that they usually couldn’t afford. But to give them some normalcy was important to me,” Lopez said. “You have to be resourceful with the things that come your way.”
Lopez now collects clothes, toys and other children’s items for the children of Tucson House. She collects everything that is offered.
“You never know what people are going through,” Lopez said.
She also opened up the Tucson House clothes closet to some of the children, so they could start the school year off with new clothes.
While the students were happy with everything they received, Lopez said there was a touch of embarrassment, as they were aware of the charity behind the effort.
“I think if we can get to the point where we celebrate their youth, it’s not necessarily a charity anymore as much as, ‘Oh my God, you’re a Tucson House student. This is for you.’ Then there’s some pride that comes from where you live,” Lopez said.
She hopes to continue working with Tucson CARES to expand options for younger residents, including creating a teen-only space. She also began working with the Wildcat Inn to make sure her child and teenage residents have what they need.
“Having this population of kids, young adults, to me, they’re very special,” Lopez said. “I want them to thrive, I want them to succeed, and I want them to enjoy living at Tucson House.”
Contact star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or [email protected] On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt