Most teenagers spend their spare time playing sports or video games. Not Stoneham’s Max Davis. The 14-year-old just won a $36,000 award for his work to secure housing for unaccompanied homeless youth. “UHYs” are people under 25 with no home, without a legal guardian.
Davis won the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for Legislature in Action: Kids Helping Kids, a community project that engages youth in advocacy and lobbying efforts to provide shelter for local teenagers. The awards have given more than $3 million to 84 Jewish teenagers devoted to tackling global issues through tikkun olam (repairing the world). Roughly 15 activist teenagers receive the prestigious scholarship each year.
Davis has cared about homeless activism ever since his grandmother, a teacher, fostered a homeless student whom he now considers an aunt; his parents are active in homelessness advocacy too. Then, during his outreach, Davis met a young Afghanistan veteran—not much older than him—who collapsed in the field with an apparent heart condition. Because he didn’t finish his tour of duty, he couldn’t collect benefits. “He ended up living in a tent,” Davis says. “This story pushed me over the edge.”
And so what began as a bar mitzvah project with a few friends turned into something far bigger.
“I started a group called Legislature in Action with a group of friends from my temple and Hebrew school, an advocacy group for kids,” Davis says. “One of the really sad pieces of information I learned is that there are 13,000 unaccompanied homeless youth in Massachusetts alone. If you do the math, if you put them all together, you could form a city.”
In 2014, Davis and his friends went to the State House and lobbied legislators in the hallways during their breaks—with huge success.
“Legislators aren’t used to seeing kids, so they’re more interested in what you have to say. Every time we talked to them, we always got some kind of compliment, like, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing! This is awesome!’ We’re so young and we’re so passionate about what we do; we want to make a lasting change,” he says.
Davis began speaking regularly in front of Senate majority leaders and teamed up with local organizations, including the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and the Community Service Network, to advocate for more awareness. He also began working with The Greater Boston Food Bank.
Ultimately, Davis’s goal was to pass a bill to support unaccompanied homeless youth into law that would provide them with housing and supportive services. He drafted talking points, attended meetings with policymakers and testified at public hearings about the bill—and it became law. Now he’s pushing for $2 million in funding to create a shelter for these teenagers, complete with classrooms and private rooms with bathrooms.
“We want housing with their own bedrooms and bathrooms because many of these kids are LGBT and might feel uncomfortable—often, they’ve been kicked out of their homes because their parents don’t support them,” he says.
The drafts have been drawn and plans are underway, though Davis can’t disclose the location. Now he’s working on a capital funding campaign to finish out the project. He’s donated money from his scholarship and raised $8,000 so far.
“I’m asking corporations to donate and match what I gave. If a 14-year-old kid can give that much, I bet a corporation could,” he says.