Homeless =/= Voiceless

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Kids keep spirits bright

by Cassie Klapp

A tall, dark and smiling man walks by, carrying a plateful of food. His shoulders slump slightly when he walks, and his smile has a gap in the middle. He wears a pair of small green glasses that sit on his nose and make his kind eyes appear larger than they are. He seems to know everyone in the kitchen and just by looking at him, many wouldn’t know he is homeless with 24 kids.

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

Charles Gordon, 63, grew up not too far from the St.Vincent de Paul food bank in Casa Grande. He was one of the oldest of 19 kids whom his grandmother raised on a farm. Gordon and his cousin Dennie Jean were like second mothers to the other children.

Caring for the other kids and doing everything from cooking and cleaning to sewing, milking the cow and diaper changing were among their daily tasks. Though they did so much around the house, his grandmother never let them miss a day of school. He graduated high school in 1967.

“I’m glad she forced it into me,” Gordon said.

Tragedy split the big family in all directions that same year, when his grandmother died. They spread out from Kentucky to Texas to California. Gordon moved in with his mother and was able to attend Central Arizona College. He studied business management, but then changed his focus to handling heavy equipment and received a certificate.

Another loss affected Gordon when his mother passed away from cirrhosis.

“She drank herself to death,” Gordon said. “Some people cuss their moms out and when something happens to her you’ll cry your eyes out.”

Gordon said he regrets not being able to get to know her better despite the choices she made. He said no matter what she did, he still loves her.

Gordon began working odd jobs after receiving his certificate at CAC. One job was laying roof shingles on a home. A wrong step led him sliding down the rooftop.

“I decided all I could do was jump,” Gordon said. He landed and badly damaged his back. Gordon has relied on Social Security benefits since the 1989 injury.

Throughout all of his trials and tribulations of his life, he also fathered 24 children.

“I had my first kid when I was 15,” Gordon said.

He is very fond of companionship and said he cannot wait to see his grandkids for Christmas. He half-joked part of the reason he is homeless is from getting presents for all the grandkids. He has 12 daughters and 12 sons.

Two of his daughters live in Phoenix, along with 13 of his grandchildren. He said they stay in contact. Just the other day, he gave one of his daughters money to help buy Christmas presents for the children.


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‘A marathon of haircuts’ for clients at St. Vincent

by Corie Stark

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

Every three months, an ordinary meeting room at St. Vincent de Paul in downtown Phoenix transforms into a $40,000 salon, equipped with barber chairs, shampooing sinks and state-of-the art styling equipment.

That’s what needed for the organization’s quarterly “Hair-Cut-a-Thon”, according to its coordinator, Sharon Ashby-Robinson.

Sharon Ashby-Robinson has long provided her volunteer services to various charities and shelters. Her first exposure to people experiencing homelessness came from a stint with the Sisters of Mercy. Humbled by the experience overall, she was left with one haunting concern.

“I noticed how dirty they were and that was back when rednecks used to always say to them, ‘Oh, why don’t you get a job?’” she said. “I wanted it to stop.”

With the help of Christopher Becker, a head volunteer of St. Vincent de Paul at the time, Robinson launched the program in March 1992 in a small, crowded room supplied with leaky faucets and hazards.

Since its inception, the program has skyrocketed, providing over a half-million haircuts to clients in its 21 years.

Steven Jenkins, a longtime volunteer, organizes the lines leading into the salon. He gives each person a unique compliment as he or she departs with a new hairstyle and bag full of toiletries.

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

“It’s a marathon of haircuts,” he said. “The best part is everyone in that room helping doesn’t have to be there, including the barbers.”

And while they may be volunteers, each barber is licensed. Arizona Barber Styling College sends student volunteers occasionally to help with the massive influx of people. Every “Hair-Cut-a-Thon” operates from 9:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Anyone ranging from families of six or seven to single men comes from a trim; nobody is turned away. Whether it’s for personal reasons or to find a job, the clients of these stylists are grateful.

“I can’t afford a normal haircut right now, because I have no money to pay for it,” said Anthony Walker, as he sat in one the white cushioned chairs for the first time.

Walker lost his job after the economy spiraled downward. Originally living on the streets, he became irritated with the cold, urban landscape and sought refuge at St. Vincent.

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

“I don’t want to look like a wild animal,” he said. “I hope through this haircut I can maybe get a job.”

That’s what organizers hopes, too. Ashby-Robinson remembers helping a man who had a job interview two days after coming to St. Vincent. When it was discovered his hair was damaged by the early stages of lice, Ashby-Robinson personally helped him clean up.

A week later, he came into the shelter to thank her. Ashby-Robinson hasn’t seen him since, meaning he’s likely landed on his feet.

“Everyone is a human being. Programs like this give them a little sense of hope,” she said. “They know that somewhere, somebody cares about them.”

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Client: Family hinders research progress

by Corie Stark

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

Quantum Moreno spoke vehemently about physics, the mechanics of cold fusion and a possible cure for diabetes. But all his completed theories – large notepads filled with numbers, data and formulas – are locked away in a home to which he has no access.

In fact, Moreno hasn’t spoken to his mother in over a year. After his father passed away, he said his family ties completely soured.

“I went from living in a four-bedroom house to having nothing and being on the streets,” Moreno said.

Everything changed when his sister and mother jumbled communication at home. While his mother allowed him to return to the home, his sister had filed a “no trespassing” restraint against him.

The last time he tried to get in, police officers greeted him and carted him away. All his possessions lie within the house.

“The cops told me I couldn’t be there,” he said. “I had no idea where to go after that, and now I don’t have anything. I felt like they tricked me.”

Before his family situation turned bleak, Moreno said he worked closely with his father, a high-level engineer for various companies, including Honeywell. At one point, his dad held an esteemed position for the U.S. Department of Defense, Moreno said.

“He was like ‘Q’ from James Bond,” he said. “He knew a lot of secrets, and so do I.”

Moreno helped research projects his dad sent to him. Moreno, a Type 1 diabetic and epileptic, said he had little choice but to work from home.

“My dad and his team won so many awards,” he said. “Plaques. And I helped him with them.”

Seeing his dad’s successes fueled Moreno to personally strive toward further knowledge. He said he has spent countless hours exploring the causes of diabetes, and potential cures to the disease. Moreno confidently feels there’s a way to fix it.

Such prowess follows him in more universal subject material, too. After tinkering for months, he developed a theory known as “Guidance Omniscience Datasphere,” (GOD) which, according to Moreno, possesses the answers for everything.

“Light, speed, pressure and energy can all be harnessed through GOD,” he said.

Moreno laments the family problems that have led him to seek help from St. Vincent de Paul for the last seven months.

He said he has sought help from them longer than he expected but doesn’t know what else to do. However, he said that doesn’t break his spirit when it comes his research.

“I know I’m on the verge of something,” he said. “If I could just go home and get my papers, I could feel I could go to Arizona State University and hand them to some math professor and then I’d be set.”

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Prison and the economy

by Anne Stegen

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

One client said he has been homeless for seven months. He said a stint prison caused his misfortune, but he said he is in the small percentage of people who try to get out of the system.

Mike Allen, 46, was in prison for four years. He said he was released from prison in Phoenix and lived in the Valley ever since.

Allen said he served time in prison for pawning a ring for a friend that had been stolen.

“When I got out I had nothing,” Allen said. He added that his property was taken while he was serving time in prison. He said his carpentry tools are gone, and he can’t find a job without them.

A carpenter by trade, Allen said he is in the minority of people who are seeking a job and trying to get out of homelessness.

“About 25 percent of people try,” Allen said, “The rest take the free stuff.” He said that made it difficult for the people that are looking for work.

According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, one out of every 250 Arizonans experience homelessness.

Homeless Management Information System reports that 4.3 percent of people experiencing homelessness cite the reason as release from jail or prison. 16.7 percent cite lack of financial resources as the primary reason for their homelessness, and 15.6 percent say they do not know their primary reason for homelessness.

“I don’t see it getting better right quick,” Allen said. He said that the government does not seem to be helping.

“[President Barack] Obama’s doing bad things, I think,” Allen said.

Allen said he is not used to living in homelessness. He said he wants to get a job, but the economy is not conducive to the construction industry.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the construction industry is down 29 percent from its highest level in 2006.

In spite of the economy and his situation, Allen remains hopeful.

“If you want to do something, you can do it,” Allen said.

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Surgery, bills don’t stop him from trying

by Amanda Roberts

Picking up rice and beans onto his fork, Bobby seemed happy to be eating at St. Vincent de Paul again.

“I had plasma surgery, and I had some stomach problems,” he said, sipping some orange juice and smiling. “I wasn’t able to come yesterday so I hadn’t eaten in a day.”

His health problems stopped him from visiting the organization for a while, but Bobby kept moving and traveling. Originally from Tennessee, Bobby said he traveled across the country for years.

“Eventually I came to Phoenix to live with my brother. Then he left and I was still here,” he said.

Bobby said he isn’t really a homeless person. He said he shared an apartment with a roommate and has worked for nine years at the same construction company. His problems started when he couldn’t keep up with his bills.

“The bills started to pile up,” said Bobby, “but there were so many of them that it became hard to pay them all. They wanted this paid and that paid and I just couldn’t keep up.”

After having his hours cut at work and his continued difficulty paying his bills, Bobby began to use St. Vincent de Paul’s services as well as other Valley outreach services.

“I used to go to CASS (Central Arizona Shelter Services) before I got my place and I use St. Vincent de Paul to get the meal services,” he said.

Despite what has happened physically and economically to Bobby, his outlook remained positive. He saved his money slowly and put it aside. He looks forward to the new year for one reason.

“In the middle of February, I’ll be moving out of my old place and getting my own apartment. It’ll be much easier than living with my roommate because there’s still some problems, and I can definitely take care of myself,” Bobby said.

He also hopes to soon get a car so he doesn’t have to take the public transportation around in the city.

Bobby networked with friends and family to stay afloat. Other people who also are down on their luck don’t do this, he said.

He said he helps his friends out “when I can, and I hope they help me out too.”

“You got to pick yourself up,” he said. “You can’t just sit around and do nothing. You got to catch up and go.”

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Three homeless but hopeful stories

by Joshua Delauder

On a Sunday afternoon in December, three people told their stories at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank in downtown Phoenix. They recalled who they used to be and how homeless life has changed them.

Kenton Wiggins   

Kenton Wiggins, 52, is a faith-based man who said “life has been excellent.” He has been homeless since Nov. 1, 2011, and has been coming every day to enjoy the food.

He said he has mostly spent his life in Scottsdale and has never gone any place else. His family includes a brother, one daughter and two grandchildren. He keeps in maintains contact and an excellent relationship with all of them. He had best friends, but he said once he found his faith he didn’t like what they stood for anymore and decided to leave them.

Wiggins leaves everything up to God, but he said his life was not always like that. He said he used to steal, lie and commit adultery. He went to jail for five months, at the age of 20, then he turned his life around and found his faith, he said. Now, he said that no matter where you are or what situation you are in, your faith will be tested and you cannot give into sin. He said he has forgiven all those people who hurt him, and said now he just likes to keep to himself and do his own thing. He’s a lot more humble now that he realizes just exactly what life is all about, he said.

Everything could leave you in the blink of an eye, he said. Life for him is challenging. He said he’s  been putting in applications for work, but hasn’t been getting any callbacks. Throughout all of this, he has become a very optimistic guy who said that everything will turn out for the best as long as you keep God with you.

Venis Smith

Venis Smith, 53, has been homeless for 14 months.

He comes from Chicago, where he was a carpenter. After the housing slump, he said there just wasn’t any work, so he moved to Texas and then Arizona. He said it went downhill from there. He has been going to St. Vincent’s about every two weeks to check his mail and to get a meal.

He said he was successful in Chicago, earned $35 per hour and owned a nice house, three Harley motorcycles and a sports car. In Texas, he had a job where he made customs homes. He said he built about 120 homes in about a year. He flew out to Arizona and then everything collapsed. (Beyond carpentry, his only other skill is road construction, Smith said. He’s never been to college, and he said his high-school education was limited. The best education, to him, is on-the-job training.)

Now, all he has is his bike and his backpack. He rides his bike everywhere and said he’s going to bike all the way up to Colorado Springs, Colo., in the spring. He said he’s used to moving around because he was a “military brat” and had to move every couple of years. He has two brothers in Chicago and he keeps in touch with them.

He said that ever since he’s been in Phoenix, he has noticed that “the people of Phoenix show a lot of compassion.” Survival, he said, is simple here in Phoenix, but it’s just really boring being homeless and unemployed. He said you just wake up and wonder just what are you going to do all day.

Smith portrays himself as a nice guy who just got caught up in the bad economic times, but still has job experience and wants to work.

Darryl Jackson

Darryl Jackson, 42, said he has only been homeless for four days, and he said he’s employed.

Originally from Los Angeles, he said he lived in Bellingham, Wash., and he worked on an oil barge. After that, he moved backed to Los Angeles because his friend was putting together a new reality show and he thought he might get a part in it. But, he said, it took too long to get the reality and he eventually ended up here.

He heard the housing market was still recovering from the downturn and thought he could get a cheap home in Phoenix.  He said he has been taking full advantage of the social services that are offered to him and has even made a friend there while they were doing chores.

He said has a job programming old phones that pays $9.50 an hour. It’s a full eight-hour job and he seemed extremely happy to get it. He called himself “lucky.”

Oddly, he said he had enough money for a home, but didn’t want to do anything until he was firm on his feet and had a job.

He said he has three daughters, but has never been married.

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Two of a kind

by Amanda Roberts

On first glance, Austin and Robert looked as though they’d known each other for years. The two shared ear buds and listened to music on Robert’s iPhone.

by Lindsay Ivins

by Lindsay Ivins

“I only met him just yesterday,” Austin said. He laughed and glanced at Robert.

“We bonded over the same music,” Robert said. “Found out we like rock and rap.”

At ages 18 and 21 respectively, Austin and Robert do not look like they belonged to the homeless community. Dressed almost like twins in dark sweat shirts, jeans and hats – Austin wore a beanie and Robert wore a fedora – the two sat together and bonded over music while eating rice, beans, bread and ham. Their stories, however, differ from their outward appearances.

Austin, a native of Avondale, spent 12 years in the care of Child Protective Services after he was removed from his mother’s home when he was 6. He said he recently began to use the St. Vincent services after and was released from the state’s care.

Robert, the traveler of the pair, said he has lived all over the West Coast. Adopted by his mother but not his father in his youth, Robert has attended boarding schools and group homes, and eventually found himself at a Christian ministry in San Diego for two years. He said was a victim of identity theft and had to leave the city because he couldn’t get work, so he came to Phoenix. He said he has been trying to get stable footing since then.

“I think other people are lazy because they just sit around out there and do nothing,” Austin said. “You got to make your own way.”

Robert agreed. “God gave you two arms, two legs and a brain. Even if you weren’t born with those, you still have the ability and responsibility to do something.”

The two young men still have plans despite their current unemployment.

“I’m going to be attending Phoenix College next semester,” said Austin. “I had to wait because I wasn’t 18 earlier this year to do so. I’m just waiting on my scholarships now.”

He said he plans to use some of his scholarship money to pay for an apartment. He also plans to get a job soon after starting school so he can afford to eat. He will study general sciences at Phoenix College before eventually moving onto medical school to become an anesthesiologist.

Robert has a few career paths in mind for himself.

“I plan to either become a masseur—“

“A what?” Austin said, looking at him.

“You know,” Robert said, holding up his hands and squeezing an invisible person’s shoulders.

“Oh, a masseuse!” Austin laughed. Robert shook his head with a chuckle.

“Yeah, so I plan to either do that, or study to be a chiropractor, or do culinary arts,” Robert said. “I like organic food and want to make it for people. I just want to look out for others’ health and well-being.”

In 10 years, Robert has high hopes for himself.

“It may seem childish, but I can see myself in 10 years owning a Ferrari and a Lamborghini,” Robert said.

Austin laughed and said, “Yeah? Then I’ll be a superhero.”