Thousands of Arizonans are experiencing homelessness, and many are children and young adults.

They may be couch surfing or living on the street, but they all need someone they can trust.

Ive been on my own for a long time I took care of my mom for years and years. And when she passed, my family had to split and find places to live, said Mercedez Marquez, who tells KGUN shes been homeless over 10 times in her life.

When Im homeless, I just feel dead inside because people dont know how to look at homeless people, she said. Whatever reason that [people] have for avoiding eye contact, it hurts every time Especially when youre lonely, you dont know where youre gonna sleep, you dont know, you havent a solid meal in days.

She struggled to find sobriety and hope until five or six years ago, when she was 21.

She would spend time at the Goodwill Metro Youth Center on 4th Avenue, where she started talking with Stand Up for Kids volunteers in purple shirts.

They kept coming around and they remembered my name, she recalled. They remembered my name And they could look at me and give me a hug. I wasnt freakin venomous or something.

Kim Sisson is the executive director of the Stand Up Tucson chapter, which dropped to only 5 volunteers during the pandemic. Now, theres nearly 30 of them.

Its unacceptable that with our resources [in the U.S.] that we have kids living unaccompanied in the street, she said. And it turns out theyre amazing kids. They just need someone who believes in them. And thats us.

The Tucson chapter found 282 new kids in the area last yearthough Sisson says thats a low number considering their team was still limited by the impact of COVID.

Sisson says shes met thousands of homeless youth in her 16 years with the group.

But the goal isnt just to find and count these young people, its to gain their trust.

Theyre hard to find, said Sisson. They dont want to be found. They havent been treated very well. Were patient. We just keep showing up. We stay consistent and, if we can help, we will help.

Most of the time, its just listening for as long as they need us to listen.

Marquez believes other forms of outreach are too focused on getting information through questions about sensitive topics, like trauma or family issues.

Its really heart-wrenching where every time you are asked those questions, its by a new face. A strange face, she told KGUN. And so, the fact that Stand Up for Kids, they have consistency and authentic communication. It means the world. It honestly makes the biggest difference in the world.

So do simple hygiene items and non-perishable food, which volunteers hand out. They distributed 782 food packs last year.

Food, clothes, socks, even a bike and a tent, said Marquez. I think that receiving something while experiencing homelessness gives me like an inch of dignity back.

Now, Stand Up for Kids has its own community center in Midtown Tucson, which opened early this year.

It has food, clothes and other essentials along with spaces for music, art and talking with a mentor.

Its really difficult in the street to have those tough conversations, right? [The kids] have to keep a persona, said Sisson. “By having the center, we can offer them a lot more services.

Arizona football coaches and players are among those who stopped by the center for a community event last month, looking for ways to learn and support the cause.

[Kim] is relentless about helping young people and getting them back on their feet, said Arizonas defensive line coach Ricky Hunley. Kids need a place to go. They cant just stay in the street. And they need some mentoring Be able to talk and connect. And this is just the start of it.

Marquez has had stable housing for two years now, but its only recently felt like home.

I just put stuff on the walls, maybe last month, she said. When people experience homelessness, its hard to nest.

The hope is the Stand Up for Kids volunteers, and the new center, can make that a little bit easier.