Homeless Life: In And Out Of 'The Zone'

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, September 1, 2020 - 7:49am

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Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
Homeless tents can be seen in "The Zone" in downtown Phoenix.

Homelessness is already a continual and growing problem in Maricopa County.

The 50 days of 110-degree temperatures in the Valley this year have made it especially hard on the region’s most vulnerable.

Recently, KJZZ’s Tom Maxedon spent some time in downtown Phoenix at one of the largest homeless encampments as Valley volunteers delivered water and sanitary items, tent by tent, in the searing heat.

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Arizona State University student Austin Davis is trying to help homeless people beat the heat on a recent Sunday in downtown Phoenix.

Under the scorching sun, he fills up a wagon from his SUV packed with water and sanitary supplies at high noon near what’s often referred to as “The Zone,” close to the Human Services Campus.  

Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
Austin Davis is an ASU student and member of Arizona Jews For Justice, a Valley nonprofit. He makes weekly trips to "The Zone" to hand out water and sanitary packets.

Davis is a member of Arizona Jews for Justice, a Valley nonprofit.

He has been delivering water, gloves, masks, soap and other items to the area once or twice per week since March.

He said the group’s mission is to foster social justice in the state. When he began his outreach to the homeless community in downtown Phoenix, Davis said, “My biggest concern was getting big crowds — creating a big crowd. So, I found that it’s probably safer for everyone if I go tent to tent.”

Daniel Smith is a veteran living in “The Zone” and has been homeless for over six months. He said he had just gotten off the streets, “… but then I helped some friends out and they got me kicked out of my program. So, now I’m back out here with nothing."

When asked whether he ever checks into the Human Services Campus at all, Smith said, “At nighttime, I can do overflow, that’s about it. I don’t have a tent of my own. I’m kicked outside all day during the day.”

He said city officials could help people who spend the majority of their days outside cool off by installing cooling stations or misters.

Residents of “The Zone” appreciate supplies and cold water and other items from groups and individuals who share Davis’ direct approach, like a woman who came up to him as he was hauling supplies.

Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
The entrance to the Welcome Center at the Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix. It is located near "The Zone."

“How are you doing today?” asked Davis.

The unnamed woman laughed. “It’s the inferno, you know,” she replied.

“Oh, I know. It’s so hot out here,” he said as he gave her a cold bottle of water.

She was overjoyed. “Look at this. It’s what I need. Thank you!” she said. 

But, those like Amy Schwabenlender who have worked to reduce homelessness for many years in a more professional capacity remind folks with charitable hearts who are donating supplies in “The Zone” there are some misconceptions about people living there.

“There’s an assumption or belief that everyone there must need food and water and soap or deodorant," Schwabenlender said. 

Many well-known and longstanding charitable groups have been combating homelessness in the Valley for decades.

Schwabenlender, executive director of the Human Services Campus near “The Zone,” said “St. Vincent de Paul and Andre House provide three meals per day for those who are hungry, and other partner organizations have shower facilities, personal hygiene products and even clean clothes for those in need.”

The Campus is made up of over 15 partner organizations that seek to end homelessness and Schwabenlender said, “We have engaged a lot of individuals and groups to change their giving behavior from giving on the street to working with us in partnership on the Human Services Campus. We’ve had some people convert from doing what they like to do out on the street and doing it via the Campus.”  

In 2019, the programs represented by the Campus connected over 700 people to permanent housing and diverted nearly 500 others from becoming homeless in the first place.

Volunteers
Tom Maxedon/KJZZ
Volunteers arrive with supplies on a hot Sunday afternoon in August 2020 in downtown Phoenix.

A third of the 6,500-plus individuals served by the campus in 2019 were over 50 years old and two-thirds were men.

So what’s the next bold move to help reduce homelessness in the Valley amid a pandemic?  

“Let’s shore up our infrastructure with this one-time CARES Act money now. What are we waiting for?” asked Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS). The organization is a significant voice of coalition members helping to re-imagine and end to homelessness in the Valley.

For Glow, long-term solutions rely on developing more affordable housing. “The housing plan that the city of Phoenix did has a goal of 50,000 units either being constructed or renovated by 2030 because there’s such a severe lack of affordable housing,” she said.  

Other long-term solutions include adopting a regional model and getting more shelters built, especially for seniors outside of Phoenix proper, according to Glow who indicated the political will in the state Legislature was simpatico. “It [SB 1283] was going to pass this session and it was in the budget but because of COVID it didn’t go forward,” she said, as SB1283 was championed by Republican state Sen. David Livingston.

In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the amount of homeless people who can take advantage of existing services while leading to an increase in the total amount of people who now find themselves without permanent shelter.

Phoenix has a plan available for public comment. The Human Services Campus, its partners and CASS will be integral to implementing whatever is passed.

But for volunteers like Davis, who just want to express a little human touch in the meantime, folks on the margins appreciate him and other volunteers.

“Would you like some care packs and water?” Davis asked.

The anonymous man responded with a single word, “Yeah.”

“Here’s some water,” said Davis as he handed out a bottle and a pack of supplies.

“Good. Just in time. Thank you. God bless you.”  

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