ASU students start organization to alleviate homelessness in Phoenix

Bakpak, a student-run organization, is working to address homelessness

One in 184 people in Arizona are homeless, and 71 percent of Arizona's homeless population lives in Maricopa County.

After two years on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus, medical studies junior Vivienne Gellert decided something needed to be done.

Gellert explained that one day while she was walking through downtown Phoenix in fall 2015, she realized she passed by the same homeless man every day for two years.

She offered him coffee, which he declined, but she bought him groceries. She purchased four bags of groceries and gave him a reusable bag to carry them in.

A few weeks later, Gellert saw the man walking across the street, holding his belongings in the bag she gave him.

"It was at that moment I realized there was more I could do," she said.

Gellert started Bakpak, an organization designed to connect students with the homeless population in their community.

"The purpose of this organization is to encourage students within the community to help create these Bakpak," she said. "To give someone a Bakpak is to give those on the streets a second chance. We hope that with each Bakpak given, we inspire someone to move forward, and to make a comeback in society.”

Students of all ages are encouraged to get involved, and the organization is planning to start branches at local elementary and high schools soon. 

Gellert's younger sister Amelia spent her 12th birthday volunteering with the organization.

"We sorted clothes from girls to boys in different sizes and did tie-dye socks to sell at First Friday," Amelia said. "I just think it’s a really nice thing to do because they might be going through something, like they might be very hungry or they might not have somewhere to sleep, and you want to give what you have to help them."

Medical studies junior Jacinda Bringas, public relations director for Bakpak, said that she got started in the organization through a public speaking class that she took with Gellert.

In the class, Bringas said they were assigned a speech that urged the public to do something, and Gellert focused on what she called "toxic charity," the idea that money given to those in need can be spent poorly, as opposed to a charity that might spend it on necessities. 

"That’s where we came up with this idea, of 'What if we don’t do money?'" Bringas said. "Let’s just keep money out of it and give them sustainable things that they can use."

Right now, Bakpak is in its 12 months of giving, called the H.E.A.L. Initiative, which entails hosting events each month geared toward helping the homeless community.

"We include foot care assessments because the homeless community is always on their feet and it’s the easiest way for them to contract infections and diseases, so we always want to make sure they have clean feet," Bringas said. "Also at those events we have clothes drives, we’re doing a haircut drive, just things that we know will benefit them."

Bringas said there is no set schedule for events, but they are listed on the organization's website as they come up, along with information about how to get involved, how to donate, what they need and information about homelessness in general.

After the H.E.A.L. Initiative ends, Bakpak will begin a 10-week program that focuses on getting homeless individuals back into the job force.

"That is our main goal, we want to connect the homeless with jobs," Gellert said. "Whether or not they get a job, we are doing our job as humans to help alleviate an individual's homelessness."


Reach the reporter at aegeland@asu.edu or follow @alexisegeland Twitter.

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