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We can’t wait for the unhoused to come to us

Shmuly Yanklowitz and Austin Davis
Shmuly Yanklowitz and Austin Davis

In Arizona, where I live, every summer I witness an enormous insult to the God-given dignity inherent in every person. With high temperatures regularly around 115 degrees every day, our unsheltered sisters and brothers literally start dying from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

In 2021, 130 unhoused individuals in Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix and surrounding areas, experienced heat-associated deaths. In 2020, 75% of heat-associated deaths took place among the unhoused population. And with Maricopa Country’s unsheltered population 34% larger than it was in 2020 (over 5,000 people), even more of our neighbors are in danger.

(Wherever you are located, I’m sure a similar sense of urgency applies.)

Yes, there are people in shelters and related programs, about 4,000 in my county. And these services provide critical help. However, sometimes they are too full, and sometimes our friends, due to various personal challenges, are not accepted. So my outreach partners and I saw that we need a strategy for helping the marginalized of the marginalized.

The first idea we put into action, largely due to resourcefulness of my teammate in this work, a recent college graduate named Austin Davis, was a minivan we transformed into a “mobile cooling unit,” which we put to use in “The Zone,” Arizona’s largest unsheltered encampment, this July.

This van pulls up to homeless camps stocked with two air-conditioning units powered by two solar-powered generators, three water-misting fans, an ice machine, water-dispensing units and a canopy that extends out the back to provide seating and shade.

Austin Davis

Further, as our neighbors that we reach with the van are experiencing cooling relief and escaping the oppressive heat, our team is able to talk to, support and offer resources to help them get services such as medical care, detox, shelter and housing services.

We were able to do this due to a $8,599 grant from the City of Phoenix Grant — largely thanks to Phoenix City Councilwoman Yassamin Ansari, our main partner in realizing this project — with every penny of it going to the supplies for this mobile cooling unit.

As a Jew, though, I see our imperative to bring relief to the streets as rooted in the Torah, most cinematically in a story about our father Abraham.

“He was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot,” it says in the Book of Genesis. “Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.”

“Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree,” Abraham says. “And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves.”

Now, just like in the Torah, the dangers of being in the heat and unable to go home demand that we, like Abraham, run to be of assistance. Each of us should be asking ourselves, “What can I do in my community following the path of Abraham, who went out with a sense of urgency to help these strangers?” Perhaps you don’t live in a place of extreme heat but live in a place of extreme winters. How can we start preparing for that?

All over America and the world, there are populations that are seriously struggling, such as those imprisoned in hot climates with no air conditioning, which is shamefully often the case in America today. It’s easy for us living our whole lives in AC to forget how big of a threat the summer heat is.

There are simple ways to contribute, such as funding and working with already-existing endeavors, such with this new mobile cooling unit, which you can support here. But we can also look for more and more creative solutions. For example, IKAR, in Los Angeles, has a “Safe Parking Program.” There are also synagogues that convert their facilities into shelters for the local homeless population.

We need to end homeless in America. That will reequire a big legislative lift on the federal, state and local levels. But, between now and then, we must just save lives through innovative humanitarian endeavors. We may not be able to fulfill the high moral call from Isaiah 58:7: “Take the poor into your homes!” but perhaps we can go out of our homes to them. Deuteronomy 15:8 charges with a Biblical command to open our hands to others. No matter what we do (opening our home, our hand or our heart), we should follow in the path of Abraham in realizing that taking initiative is our responsibility. We must not wait for them to come to us with an open hand; we must go to them.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.

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