Paz de Cristo has served as a beacon of hope for the needy in Mesa for 32 years, serving millions of hot meals and countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Paz continues to provide good nutrition for the hungry even if it is in a different form, with grab and go meals replacing dining in the non-profit charity’s dining room.
“Feeding is a core element of our service, but we are going beyond that,’’ said Joe Tansill, Paz’s new executive director. “I’m very interested in building partnerships and collaborative arrangements.’’
He said one of Paz’s primary guiding principles is summed up by the slogan, “More Than a Meal.’’
That’s exactly how the organization is evolving as it responds to the pandemic.
With the dining room no longer being used for dining because of the pandemic, Tansill has been turning it into a Community Resource Center, serving as a critical portal into Mesa’s Off the Streets Program for the homeless.
Two navigators from Community Bridges, a Mesa behavioral health agency, meet with the homeless and steer them in the best direction to provide emergency housing – whether that involves rooms rented by the city through the Mesa Cares program or a shelter.
Two additional navigators from COPA Health focus more on the mental health and substance abuse issues that often are the root of homelessness.
“We’re well known and well established in the area. When people are experiencing a housing crisis, they come here,’’ Tansill said.
Paz also is one of several major beneficiaries of Feeding Mesa, perhaps the most basic and important aspect of Mesa Cares throughout the pandemic.
Paz receives 800 hot cooked meals a week from Feeding Mesa, with St. Vincent de Paul, which traditionally provides breakfast, receiving 1,000 a week.
“It’s a real Godsend. This COVID has really disrupted all of our volunteers,’’ Tansill said.
Paz has only eight full-time staff members and has traditionally relied on crews of 17 volunteers, mostly from a variety of church denominations, to cook and serve meals.
But now, with many people fearful of contracting COVID-19, volunteer crews have shrunk to only seven. The lack of dining makes it possible for a smaller crew to serve the hungry.
Because Feeding Mesa is providing cooked meals four days a week through the end of this year, the Paz volunteers cook only on Saturday-Monday.
Paz provides 50,000 meals per month, counting the meals to go and food boxes that can feed a family of four for three days, Tansill said.
But Paz and St. Vincent de Paul are only two of several non-profit agencies in Feeding Mesa’s efforts to fight hunger during the pandemic through Mesa Cares, the city’s multi-faceted response to the pandemic fueled by $93 million in federal aid.
The Mesa Convention Center was turned into the hub for the feeding program. Personal Touch Catering has been cooking up an average of 4,000 meals a week and exceeded that during the last week of October, when they churned out 5,200.
Since March, Feeding Mesa has provided 3.1 million meals at a cost of about $6 million, incorporating food drives and the United Food Bank and the Midwest Food Bank, into the campaign.
Additional non-profits receiving the meals include A New Leaf, which operates shelters for homeless men and domestic violence victims, Save the Family and the Salvation Army.
The importance of Paz in providing social services in Mesa was underscored by Assistant City Manager Natalie Lewis and other city officials when they recently briefed the City Council on plans to continue the Off the Streets program through 2021.
“If we don’t know their full story, then send them to Paz de Cristo,’’ Lewis said. “I think the message is Paz de Cristo. It’s the perfect first step. It’s a great way for us to figure out how we can help them.’’
Council has voted to spend $750,000 in federal aid to make at least 50 hotel rooms available throughout next year as emergency housing to the homeless.
The hope is that sanitary conditions will help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
A federal court ruling requires cities to the have option of offering the homeless a bed before arresting them for urban camping.
“Without the hotel rooms, we would not be able to enforce the laws on urban camping,’’ City Manager Chris Brady said. “It’s a requirement for all cities now. To enforce the law, we have to have a place for them.’’
Tansill has spent his entire professional career helping the needy, working 14 years for Maricopa County in health care management and 14 years with the state Department of Economic Security as a project manager.
“My entire career was in public service. This is just an extension of that,’’ he said. “We all have to take care of each other. It’s a responsibility for all of us to do what we can for those who are less fortunate.’’
He said Paz’s immediate needs are for “gently used’’ full and twin sized blankets and for jackets to help the homeless stay warm during the winter.
A seemingly endless amount of peanut butter is needed for all of those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In the longer term, Paz needs more volunteers and more donors, with the real crunch possibly materializing if Mesa runs low on funds to continue operating the Feeding Mesa program and Congress fails to approve another pandemic relief bill.
“As a nonprofit, we are always short on money. We are not going to have to close our doors next week or next month,’’ Tansill said.