Austin Davis

Austin Davis passes out care packages to unsheltered people in The Zone in Phoenix.

It wasn’t until his first visit to The Zone that Austin Davis, intern for Arizona Jews for Justice, felt he might be starting to understand what homelessness really is. Before last March and the coronavirus pandemic, it was something he knew was a terrible problem, but as with most people, it just seemed too big and thorny an issue for him to wrap his head around.

Davis, a student at Arizona State University, came to his internship with AJJ at the beginning of 2020 after volunteering to assist the group in its advocacy for people on the U.S.-Mexico border. His mom, who was a friend of a friend of Eddie Chavez Calderon, AJJ’s campaign organizer, gave him a nudge.

Davis was inspired by the organization’s work on behalf of marginalized people and especially admired Calderon. “He’s doing such amazing work, and he’s really changed my life,” he said. “He’s one of the best mentors and role models I’ve ever had.”

The work with Phoenix’s homeless population began in earnest soon after the realities of COVID-19 set in. And it began almost as a whim.

“At the end of March, Eddie and I were just driving around downtown Phoenix,” Davis said. “We had a bunch of these seltzer waters, and we decided to go to The Zone.”

The Zone is an area near Phoenix’s capitol, between Madison and Jefferson and 10th and 15th avenues. A large population of homeless people dwell within its boundaries.

The pair’s inchoate plan of checking on the health of unsheltered people soon turned into regular action and a “massive project” to help, including collecting newly essential items for care packages and employing people to make masks.

Calderon put the call out to the Jewish community for donations to fill care packages for the unsheltered, and they responded immediately and have continued to respond throughout the summer. Last week’s donation drive was another success.

AJJ will continue its work so long as there’s a need, Calderon said: “I don’t see systemic poverty ending anytime soon.”

Davis, who isn’t Jewish, is impressed by the speed at which the community acts on AJJ’s requests. Donations just start showing up everywhere, he said, and the office is still full of them.

“The Jewish community is just incredible,” he said. “And the work we do definitely feels spiritual, in a way. There are so many amazing people in the community — I’m not really sure if I understand it all yet.”

The word “homeless” might not even be accurate in describing many of the people in The Zone and other places, according to Barbara Lewkowitz, Beth El Congregation’s social action chair.

“Some are people who are homeless but who are now sheltered, and some are people who are unsheltered homeless,” she said. “It’s important to make that distinction for people to learn more about the issue.”

Beth El’s social action committee focuses on the unsheltered in Greater Phoenix. The synagogue partners with AJJ, as well as Arizona Friends for the Homeless, in its work. AFH provides hygiene kits, snacks, hats, masks and other items that Beth El collects from its congregants in “contactless drive-throughs.”

One exciting possible AFH development, Lewkowitz explained, is the acquisition of a recreational vehicle where people can take showers and wash up. If that comes to fruition, the RV will be parked at Beth El.

Another of the synagogue’s partners is Project Haven, a part of Central Arizona Shelter Services. It is a hotel housing elderly people staying in a homeless shelter. On Oct. 25, Beth El will be making hygiene kits for those being moved from the downtown shelter into the hotel, and are in the process of collecting goods.

The social action committee hopes to have a real impact in regards to homelessness. Lewkowitz, who worked in nonprofits for 28 years, is happy that the committee wants to have a positive impact over the long haul rather than have a “Let’s get together one day and make sandwiches” mentality.

“Our goal is to have it embedded in our synagogue,” she said. “I think it’s working really well.”

Meanwhile, Davis’ eyes have been opened to the problem Greater Phoenix faces, which is why every week he takes his face mask and shield and climbs in his car with freshly stocked care packages that include food, water, hand sanitizer, a face mask and various hygiene items. He drives to The Zone and passes them out to people he is more familiar with now.

Partly inspired by Phoenix photographer Jon Linton’s “I Have a Name Project,” which showed the humanity of people on the streets, Calderon said, “bringing dignity to people” means building human connections with those who are barely glanced at or acknowledged. That can be as meaningful as what’s in the care package.

So Davis converses with the people he’s helping, albeit from six feet away. “I just want to see how they’re doing and what’s going on,” he said.

Homelessness is “a very passionate project — very personal” for him. “I’d like to help them in the same way that I like to help a family member,” he said. 

He recalled moments that really brought the reality home to him, from the “really scary” — a woman passed out from heat exhaustion — to the “beautiful” moments such as when a woman accepted his care package and told him she loved him.

When a woman asked to hug him, he felt he had to decline due to COVID-19. But he admitted it wasn’t easy to say no.

“That was really sweet, and I’m a very touchy, huggy person as well so I would have gladly hugged her under any other circumstances,” he said. “She just wanted to give me a hug and thank me, and it was really kind of emotional.” JN

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