Every other Saturday morning, a group of volunteers, many from Ahwatukee, join Dr. Neal Lester in a special way of helping and connecting with people experiencing homelessness.
As founding director of Arizona State University’s Project Humanities, Lester, also an Ahwatukee resident, leads Service Saturdays, as the volunteers gather on the Human Services Campus in downtown Phoenix to distribute clothing, shoes and hygiene products to men and women who have found themselves without a home.
The biweekly effort is “Humanity 101 in action,” Lester said, referring to Project Humanities, which is marking its 10th anniversary this year.
The award-winning university initiative, Project Humanities, “strives to be a leader in local, national, international conversations about the breadth, depth, and value of humanities study and humanist practice and understanding across disciplines and communities,” according to its website.
Part of the mission is to help the university and local communities “in talking, listening, and connecting” – which is what Service Saturdays is all about.
Megan Todd and her children, Santi of Mesa and Zora, participate – as does her father LaRay, who drives down form Prescott.
When ASU Project Humanities’ homeless outreach began a few years ago, the volunteers headed down to the Human Services Campus from 6:30-8:30 a.m. to support 150-200 adults experiencing homelessness.
They came from different parts of the Valley and had stored donations in garages, then used a tarp to lay the folded items for a pop-up marketplace along the 12th Avenue and Madison sidewalk.
We initially called it ‘Spontaneous Day of Service,’ said Lester, “but the idea of supporting unsheltered individuals was so transformative for the volunteers...that we and they wanted to continue.”
Now, the group comprises a collection of “intergenerational, multi-professional, and multi-communal individuals, groups, and organizations.”
It’s a lot more than distributing items to people in need.
Lester said the purpose – in the face of a growing need across the country – is to “extend humanity to individuals most denied that fundamental dignity: respect, kindness, compassion and empathy.”
But it also gives the volunteers a chance “for deep self-reflection and critical reflection on class, race, gender, age, sexuality, ability, mental health, wellness, suffering, loss, and humanity,” he added.
Which is why the outreach isn’t
a matter of dumping a bunch of stuff on tables and letting everyone have at it.
“We want to be personal shoppers and not just, having people wander around getting stuff,” Lester said. “We want to make personal contact with folks.”
And so the donated items are neatly folded and separated into a men’s table, women’s table” and toiletries. “It’s like a marketplace,” Lester said.
People can choose the toiletries they need and the clothing is carefully sorted even before the volunteers get downtown so that winter jackets are not out in July and short-sleeved shirts not out in the dead of winter.
The outreach was curtailed to a significant extent last year as a result of the pandemic and only recently ramped up.
It continued during those many months of closure largely as the result of an incoming ASU junior and poet named Austin Davis.
The Mesa youth would visit with those experiencing homelessness downtown as part of his participation in the Arizona Jews for Justice’s outreach program.
Each week Davis would write down what was needed by the people he met and then meet with Project Humanities volunteers at its warehouse where donated items are stored.
With his shopping list in hand, Davis collected the requested items and then deliver them to the needy people he had met.
There are a variety of ways to help Project Humanities’ outreach program.
Its next in-person outreach – which follows COVID-19 protocols – is this Saturday from 8:30-10 a.m. at the Human Services Campus at 204 S. 12th Ave. in downtown Phoenix. So people can be “personal shoppers” for those who need help.
They can also help sort donated items on Fridays – again with safety protocols in place.
They also can donate requested items either by themselves or through organizing efforts in their workplaces, community groups, churches and the like.
And, of course, they can contribute much-needed cash to purchase toiletries and other necessities.
To mark its anniversary, Project Humanities also is designating each month of this year for collecting a particular necessity. This month it’s bottled water, Gatorade and crystal light packs. Next month it’s new underwear, toiletries and refillable travel-sized bottles.