By Buddy Early, September 2020 Issue.
One of the tenets that Americans have lived by has always been that we will take care of one another in times of need. This idea has been severely tested in recent years, as greed and selfishness have returned and led to an epic division between the haves and have-nots. Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest of all G7 nations, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and the wealth gap between our richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center.
With the introduction of a global pandemic hitting the U.S. extremely hard, the disparity has created an economic crisis. The government response has been tepid at best, as Jeff Bezos continued to get richer, and corporations like Shake Shack, AutoNation, and the Los Angeles Lakers received payroll protection aid meant for small businesses. Many individuals waited weeks, even months, for their one-time stimulus payment … and some still have not received it. Unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans has either been exhausted or will be soon. The homeless population must continue to rely on the kindness of people. But in a time when everyone from families in crisis, to artists and service workers trying desperately to fill the gap, to small businesses struggling, are needing a hand-out, it’s no surprise that resources are stretched thin.
Enter Arana Wolin and Anne Titelbaum. The two Phoenicians understood early on during the pandemic that marginalized populations were at particular risk of falling through the cracks, and they identified a desperate need among Phoenix’s homeless. Anne, who moved from New Orleans to the Valley nearly a decade ago, had read about Krewe of Red Beans, a NOLA parade group that started delivering food to frontline healthcare workers at the start of the pandemic. She approached Arana about doing something similar, and Krewe of Hope was created.
The two New Orleans Saints fans, members of the Desert Who Dats, who meet every Sunday during football season at Angry Crab to root on their team, slapped together a Facebook page and started hitting up friends for donations. “We thought, we could support local restaurants and help a community in need,” said Anne, pointing out the dual purpose of helping support local businesses and feeding a homeless community.
Arana reached out to a friend who works at Justa Center, a resource and day center exclusively for homeless seniors in the Valley. During COVID-19, the center has been relying on community support more than ever. Rudy Soliz, director of operations for Justa Center, said the over-55 homeless demographic often gets forgotten, particularly those “stuck between 55 and 62.”
“Nobody wants to hire them, but they can’t get (social security) retirement benefits,” said Rudy. “They fall through the cracks. “A lot are on a set income, so they only qualify for so much assistance.”
Rudy knows precisely of what he speaks, having spent more than two years on the streets as a homeless senior, benefiting from the services provided by Justa Center before landing a job there. He said he landed in that predicament due to the bad choices he made in life — choices that cost him his wife, children, and his job. People living on the streets, however, all deserve respect and compassion, regardless of whether they are there because of their own actions or unfortunate circumstances, believes Rudy.
“People can be very judgmental,” said Rudy. “We all struggle alone.”
Coronavirus has impacted the Valley’s homeless hard, hitting at a time when temperatures are in triple digits and more Arizonans are seeking help.
“Everything changed,” Rudy said of the COVID-19 impact. Social distancing and safety protocols required the Center to stop doing new intakes for a while. Serving their clients became a challenge. He expects a more serious blow will be struck at the end of September, when Governor Doug Ducey’s eviction protection policy due to COVID-19 will have expired.
In the meantime, the extra help offered by Krewe of Hope has been a blessing. The concept is simple: every week Arana and Anne collect donations from community members, reach out to local restaurants to place lunch orders for approximately 125 individuals, then pick up and deliver these meals every Saturday to the Center at 10th Avenue and Jefferson Street. The women try to keep the orders at $5 per head, which has created challenges only on rare occasions. They started Krewe of Hope on March 26, and made their first delivery on April 4. By August 1, they were at nearly $9,000 raised and 2,225 meals served.
“We are targeting restaurants that are family-owned, and often multi-generational,” said Anne. “It takes a lot of dialing.”
Soliciting funds from a community dealing with a severe economic downturn would seem to be difficult, but Krewe of Hope has not missed a single Saturday in four months. According to Arana, there have been weeks when almost the entire cash reserve is depleted; however, one way or another they have been able to raise the funds necessary to purchase meals the following week.
“We got to a point where there was, like, $39 in the account,” said Arana, who posted on the group’s Facebook page that they would not be able to complete the group’s mission for that week. Within the next 24 hours she was contacted by Uberrito, which not only stepped up to fill the need, but did so as a donation. In the middle of another week that say funds at a low point, a stranger to the group Venmo’d Arana $600. And for July 4, Short Leash Hot Dogs in the Melrose District opened specifically for Krewe of Hope to make 60 Hot Dogs.
Other restaurants that have participated include Little Szechuan, McGurkey’s, Someburros, Cheese N Stuff, Cocina Madrigal and Pat’s Pizza Plus. Anne and Arana have witnessed the community and these local restaurants go above and beyond, restoring their faith in humanity during the process.
“I’m pretty sure I get just as much out of this as the restaurants and misplaced seniors,” beamed Arana, who professed that making daily calls at the end of her 9 to 5 job is the highlight of her week.
“We wouldn’t be able to do it without them; we’re just the ones carrying out the orders” added Anne, speaking of the donors and participating restaurants. Anne says Krewe of Hope is part of a trend she has been noticing in Phoenix, one that has been lacking since arriving in 2012. Phoenix has a reputation for being a bedroom community, meaning people leave work, drive home, park in their garage and settle in for the night.
“In New Orleans there were a lot of things that brought people out of their homes to be a part of the community,” Anne said. But downtown Phoenix has seen a resurgence of humanitarianism, volunteerism, and people caring for their communities, she believes.
The Justa Center is grateful to Krewe not only for providing nutritious meals each Saturday, but for helping keep its seniors together rather than them having to stand in line elsewhere trying to get a meal.
“It’s a wonderful team they’ve got,” declared Rudy. “Those two young ladies work hard every week. If not for them a lot of these seniors would be leaving Justa Center … dealing with things like heatstroke and the threat of Coronavirus.”
While the two do-gooders haven’t discussed where Krewe of Hope goes post-pandemic, should its impact on society be lessened, they are open to expanding the group’s reach, possibly to embrace the idea of cash mobs — an organized group assembling at a local business to infuse dollars into it.
“I would definitely be open to seeing Krewe evolve into something else,” said Arana. “In my utopia, there would be a growth spurt in participation.”
That participation is simple. The Krewe of Hope Facebook page is up to over 250 members, and anyone can join. Donations of any amount are accepted through Arana’s Venmo account (@Arana-Wolin) — and, yes, there is 100% transparency. Additionally, Arana and Anne are always open to suggestions for participating restaurants.
So, while it is clear that resources are indeed stretched thin at this critical time in our nation’s history, it’s also clear that it is times like these when Americans show their true compassion and recognize that giving is incumbent for a society that wants to thrive. The aforementioned dual purpose of Krewe of Hope (to help local restaurants as well as people in need) is actually a three-pronged purpose, according to the women: it is allowing the community an opportunity to give back. That’s something we can never have too much of.