The bad news: Homelessness is increasing in Phoenix and across Maricopa County.
The good: Ahwatukee professor Neal Lester’s outreach program is getting more donations and volunteers to help some of those people living on the streets.
Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University as well as the founder and director of ASU’s Project Humanities initiative, organizes a biweekly “Service Saturdays” program for homeless people in downtown Phoenix.
Dozens of volunteers bring used clothing, shoes, toiletries and other essentials and pair with homeless people so they can “go shopping” and pick the items they want or need. The next outreach is 6:30-8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19, at the same place it always is – on South 12th Avenue between West Jefferson and West Madison streets.
“People are hearing about our outreach. It’s growing,” said Lester.
Not only are the number of volunteers growing, but so are donations – to the point where Lester now has a weekly program called Friday Sorting where he needs volunteers to go through all the stuff he’s collected and organize it.
Those sessions are 2-4 p.m. every Friday at the Alameda Building, 734 W. Alameda Drive, Tempe. As with the Service Saturdays, anyone can just show up and volunteer and should enter through the gated staff entrance.
Efforts like Lester’s are vitally needed, judging by a report released last week by the Maricopa Association of Governments, which said in a release that its homeless “Point-in-Time Count tells a troubling story of an increase in the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in the Maricopa County region.
“Of particular concern is the continuing increase in the number of people living on the streets or in unsheltered situations, it said, noting that its one-day census on Jan. 22 showed 6,298 people experiencing homelessness – a 12 percent increase from the region’s 2017 number of 5,605.
Those living on the street not only constituted about a third of that count but represented a 27 percent increase over last year and a 149 percent increase over the total recorded in 2014.
“There are many complex reasons for homelessness, and one reason for the increase may be an insufficient supply of affordable housing available in the region,” the report said,
Conducted by volunteers, the annual Point-in-Time Count is just a one-night snapshot of people experiencing homelessness.
Lester said people are opening up their hearts and their wallets to his efforts.
“One of the things I’m most excited about is that three or four weeks ago we had the second highest number of volunteers,” he said, noting that 40 of about 100 volunteers were members of the Michigan State Alumni Association.
It had chosen Service Saturdays as one of its community service projects for members who participated in the alumni association’s nationwide day of service.
One alumna recently told him she’s got a donated U-Haul truck to haul “a ton of toiletries” to the Tempe warehouse for sorting.
A volunteer who works for Isagenix International in Gilbert said the company was donating five pallets laden with 1,500 “care bags” containing a pair of socks, a granola bar, bandages, sanitizer, wipes and aspirin.
“That was huge,” Lester said.
In Ahwatukee, Dr. Angie Christopher of AZ Spine Disc and Sport, 4530 E. Ray Road, Suite 110, Ahwatukee, is continuing to offer her clinic as a dropoff for donations of bottles of water.
“With temperatures rising, now is the time we’re thinking about the water,” Lester noted.
Fans Across America, a Chandler-based foundation that assists victims of nonviolence, made a swap with Lester: He took much of the women’s toiletries and clothing to the foundation, which gave him most of their male-related donations since most of the homeless people who show up for Service Saturday are men.
Volunteers who meet Lester downtown need to know two important aspects of the operation: First, they should show up promptly because “we’re like a well-oiled machine. We’re set up by 6:30 and closed down by 8:30.”
More importantly, they should be aware that they’re just not handing stuff out anonymously. They’re actually escorting a homeless person as he or she walks amid the tables of toiletries, shows and other items.
“We are personal shoppers with them, interacting on a one-on-one basis,” Lester explained, stressing the whole point about Service Saturdays just isn’t to hand out merchandise but to show “compassion, empathy, respect and integrity.”
“But as important, we’re also talking to these individuals and helping them figure out how to transition from homelessness,” he said.