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This Orthodox Teen Wrote A Book About The Houseless People He Interviewed

When 16-year-old Deal native Zac Levy walked into a 7-Eleven with his father one hot summer day, someone abruptly cut them in line. A woman, only a few years older than he was at the time couldn’t afford an Arizona tea. It was obvious. Zac’s father purchased the tea and the woman rushed out of the gas station. Zac noticed how she plucked the tea and bolted as though it hadn’t been paid for. “When we left the store, we realized she was experiencing homelessness,” Zac explained, “she was sitting on the side of the street with meager belongings and I didn’t understand how at that point in someone’s life they could end up [houseless].” 

This incident left Zac unsettled. Having grown up in the tightly-knit Syrian community, what he witnessed was an anomaly. So when he returned home, he did as his father taught him. He researched scholarly articles and online texts to grasp the phenomenon. Eventually, he approached the best sources: houseless people themselves. “I had my first interview [with a houseless person] before my first day of junior year, high school,” said Zac. He didn’t fear speaking with these people, specifically engaging with them in more controlled settings.

“I did all my interviews through shelters,” Zac explained. His family was concerned for his safety, so he coordinated with community resources. His first few interviews he did with an HIV-positive men’s shelter in Asbury Park, New Jersey. While he felt comfortable for the most part, he experienced an antisemitic incident.

“As part of the project, I founded a winter clothing drive. So I collected hundreds of bags, put signs up, and drove to people’s houses,” in tandem with a community ally, Cherry Elliot, a Muslim, African American woman. “She had been extremely helpful with everything,” Zac expressed. One day when they were both set up outside on a main street in Asbury Park, someone came up to her and said, “You’re Muslim? Why are you associating with these Jews? You shouldn’t be associating with Jews.” Cherry retorted, “We’re in the same fight together, we’re trying to help the community.” The aggressor realized that Cherry, Zac, and the others present were aligned. “That guy wasn’t even homeless, just a regular antisemite,” Zac said.

Zac’s new book Project Unhoused: A Teenager’s Journey to Share the Stories of America’s Homeless chronicles conversations with houseless people. Through these discussions, Zac was able to identify the causes of homelessness. Zac noted that drugs and alcohol are “ very infrequently the primary cause.” One person he recalls is James, whose negligent, drunk father left his agoraphobic mother without any money. James was mugged one night, and suffered a severe jaw injury followed by unemployment and the untimely death of his brother in a car accident. Then Hurricane Sandy hit, leaving Zac houseless. It was a hellish storm, and James, in the wake of his injury, became hooked on morphine which eased his emotional pain. In large part, none of this was James’ fault. Zac sees this.

He attributes homelessness to the inability to self-regulate paired with unstable community support systems and frankly, some bad luck. “In our community, we have very strong familial ties, we have large extended families that are always there for us if anything ever goes wrong. We have great parents who teach us what we need to know about the world before we enter the workplace and beyond…We have a huge safety net within the community that’s always willing to pick us up and put us back on our feet,” he said. Zac recognizes the uniqueness of this experience, hence his dedication to understanding those from starkly different backgrounds.

From a young age, Zac’s father instilled volunteering as the “most important thing” in his life. “We always work with different community organizations,” from delivering chairs and siddurim for shiva houses and working with those in hospice. And while Zac comes from an insular community, his parents never taught him to distinguish between those inside and outside the community, “there wasn’t much of a distinction with where we volunteered.” 

Zac’s debut book Project Unhoused: A Teenager’s Journey to Share the Stories of America’s Homeless came out on October 5th, 2023. You can find it on Amazon.

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