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.Nomads of a Desert City. 

Tucson's homeless denizens tell their own stories.

I became interested in documenting stories and portraits of homeless people when I moved to the Armory Park neighborhood downtown several years ago. I was struck by how many homeless people walked down our street each day. Sometimes as many as 50 or 60 people pushed carts, hauled bags of belongings, peered into garbage cans or sat against brick walls drinking or smoking cigarettes.

According to Lynn Ratener of the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless, there are 2,600 to 3,200 people without a home in Tucson. In 1998 and 1999, I met many of the people featured in my book Nomads of a Desert City (just issued by the University of Arizona Press, and from which these stories are drawn) in the downtown area. Some revealed that they did not consider themselves to be "homeless" at all. They identified "home as any place where they located themselves, a sanctuary of sorts. It could be a piece of sidewalk, a sewer, a corner, an arroyo, a cardboard box or a chair.

Here are the stories of four of the people I met, told in their own words.

Byrdy Wood
Rainbow Planet Café

BYRDY WAS HANGING OUT AT THE Rainbow Planet when I met her on a Saturday afternoon. I was there to get a mango smoothie, and she was waiting for a ride to a rave in Phoenix. Her long blonde hair was clipped with multicolored, heart-shaped barrettes, her nose and tongue were pierced and she was wearing green army fatigues and sneakers. A quiet grunge kid with deep brown eyes, she had slept for only an hour the previous night. Although tired and impatient, she sat with me at a small table and agreed to tell her story.

I'm 17 years old. I was married in a little hotel room in Anchorage, Alaska. I was really drunk. It was three days before my 15th birthday. My ex-husband was 19 when we got married. We met in a shelter in Alaska. It was an interesting experience. I learned a lot from it, but it was a pretty bad situation. I was depressed and trying to do the best I could. He was doing what he felt he needed to do at the time, but I cared about me and my daughter. My daughter will be a year and a half next month on the 11th of June. She's in Alaska with my mom right now. I didn't want her out on the street with me. It didn't seem right to have a child out on the streets. My ex-husband is her father. I'm divorced now. Yeah, it was for the best.

I was born in L.A. County, Calif., February 11, 1982. I've been living on the streets on and off for about three years. I ran away from home because of my mom's boyfriend. I really did not care for him at all. He's a good guy, but has problems. I still refuse to go home because of him. He was an alcoholic. Now he's actually recovering from the alcohol. I feel I got thrown out because of that situation. It's hard to discuss things with my mom. There's an ongoing tension between us. I'm not sure if she wants to acknowledge it. She always loves me and continues to say, "Will you please come back up here?" But her boyfriend and I don't get along. And, like, I don't want that situation around me because I was an alcoholic about three years back, and I don't want to go back to it.

I was 12 when I started drinking. I drank anything. I drank because I was bored. There was nothing better to do in Alaska. I was pretty much just trying to hang out with my friends. I lived in a little native village, about 200 miles from any major city in Alaska. There's like 200 people in my village. Athabaskan, Aleut, Tlingit, and Haida. We were one of the few white families. I finished middle school but I didn't make it through the ninth grade.

I went back to Highland High School in Albuquerque at the beginning of the school year for like three and a half weeks, but I had to quit because my ex-husband didn't have a job. We had like no money for rent. He wasn't taking care of the baby, so I had to take control and like fix the problem.

I was arrested by the police for being a runaway in Anchorage and moved back with my mom. Then her boyfriend ended up getting drunk one night and kicking down the door and starting this huge fight over me baby-sitting my baby sister. And like a week and a half later, I was on a plane to California.

Tonight I'm going to Phoenix for a rave. Then I'd like to go to Albuquerque. I have a lot of friends there. I lived there for two years, before I came here. The guy who drove me out here refused to take me back to Albuquerque. So he's like, "You can either travel with me, or you can get out here in Tempe, or you can wait 'til we get to Tucson and find somebody to, like, take care of you there." I was like, "I'll wait 'til Tucson." That was the first week in December.

I first was squatting in like tunnels and hotel rooms with other people. And then I like moved into a camper with some friends. I was in a group home for one month and moved to an independent living program, and I stayed there for five or six days. Then I moved back into the trailer. I stayed there for about a month and a half. Then I moved into a friend's apartment, and I stayed there for a few weeks until she kicked me out because she went psycho. So I ended up back out here, and now I'm kind of floating around.

I ask for spare change if I really have to. I ask friends to buy me stuff if I need to. There's other things I do. I like don't prostitute myself or anything like that. I refuse to do anything like that, but I have resorted to drug dealing before. I'm using marijuana. That's about it. I used to do a lot of LSD. Kids should stay away from too many chemical drugs, especially meth, coke, crack and heroine. A little bit of LSD here and there really doesn't hurt too much. It does hurt, but if you feel you can handle it, go for it.

What I'd like people to understand is that most of us are kind kids. We're not going to go and rob you or, like, go and hold you up for your money or pickpocket you. I've had so many people, when I was spare-changing, like I'd turn around and look at them, and they are holding their wallets as they walk away. It makes me feel so pathetic and disgraced to see that. You know, some of us have been trying to survive. Some people say the youth of America is going to take over, but, yet, we're the youth of America, and nobody cares about us. Not many people. I mean, they shun us. They look down on us. Just act like we don't even exist.

I've experienced discrimination. I've been thrown out of places because I'm homeless--like [restaurants], places like that. I have been physically threatened. I've been molested by about four different people while I've been out on the streets. I wasn't raped. I always stopped it before it got to that point.

Right now, I'm afraid of everything. It's just I have to remember that I need the strength to continue on Earth; otherwise I'm not going to last. My daughter won't have a mom. I miss her a lot. She's like the one that keeps me going.

Quite a few people have made a difference in my life. Like Donna Rowe in Albuquerque. She's the director of Youth in Transition. It's a homeless program that takes in all the hard-core street kids that have like been rejected by all the other programs or can't access them for one reason or another. I haven't really been rejected, but the shelter system does not work for me. It just really doesn't because they focus on what they want their goals to be. They don't focus on what I want my goals to be.

My goal is to survive. And get my daughter back.


Pa Kettle (Wesley Ernest Bryan)
Library Plaza

PA KETTLE RIDES A PURPLE, three-wheel bike that carries one loaf of bread, a Bible, incense, a frying pan, camp stove, propane and blankets. I first heard Pa on the library plaza playing a xylophone, which he had constructed with chimes, old pieces of wood and string. Always elegantly dressed in suspenders, button-down shirt and hat, Pa has five children and eight grandchildren. Sitting nearby was his wife of more than 36 years, Ma Kettle, who grew up on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

Where and when was I born? Born in St. Louis, Missouri, 1935. My parents were born in Haiti, and my grandfather was born in Haiti. We moved back to Haiti when I was 12 'til I was 16. I worked in the cane fields. Then we had to leave again. See, my grandfather was a voodoo witch doctor. When he became saved, he got ran out of Haiti for it. That's why we had to leave. Then he got over here, and he had to eat, so he got into the rackets.

See, my grandfather ran liquor and cigarettes. He sold 'em on the streets for folks. Yes, that's what he done. My grandfather worked for a guy in New York called Bumpy Johnson. He was like a big-time black gangster in New York. See, I go back, like the old-timers. We like to say, "Back in our day, we had real gangsters. We all wore suits. None of this baseball cap stuff." [Laughs.] But it's pretty much the same program.

At 16, I came back to St. Louis. I wanted to be a little gangster, so I got me a bunch of suits and hats, and I tried to hang out like the fellas on the block. See, when I was comin' up, you had to deal with the possibility of what was your role models. In our neighborhood, the guys in the suits always seemed to look better. They always seemed to have food on the table--even though they had a down side. When I was comin' up, runnin' numbers was the big thing in our neighborhood, and I was a numbers runner. See, what they do now, they call it Powerball. It was the same thing we was doin', but it was illegal in our days.

My neighborhood was East St. Louis. Yes, Pruitt-Igoe. The worst projects in the country. They had to blow it up. [Laughs.] It was the first public-housing experiment in this country on a mass scale, but it got so bad in St. Louis, they had to blow it up in order to close it down because it just got crazy.

Anytime they say "urban renewal," that mean "there goes the neighborhood." Somebody gettin' a parkin' lot. You know, it usually signals the destruction of the neighborhood. You felt protected by your neighborhood. If you needed anything, somebody in the neighborhood would hook you up. Now you don' have dat. Well, I do amongst a certain sober few out here. We call ourselves "street soldiers" because we all sober and we don't get no pop for it. We have to watch each other against everybody else. Some people would call us a gang, but we're not a gang. We don't smoke crack. We don't smoke weed. We don't drink. We just watch each other's butt. If somebody got to go to work, then somebody else will watch their stuff for 'em that day. See, that type of thing. If you don't have dat, you don't have no protection. If you leave your stuff somewhere, it's gone. You gotta watch yourself all the time. Four or five irate drunks'll kill each other over a sleeping bag. This is not the roughest camp. I've been in some rough camps. In Detroit, we had three buggies. We had two guns in each buggy. Needed it just to get through the various neighborhoods to get to the soup line. It's been that bad.

See, people can never really understand homelessness until they go through it, 'cause Americans have this problem: "As long as it's not one of my relatives and not in my back yard, I don't see it except on TV." You know? "I might catch it if it's on Oprah." You know? "If it happens to be on the nightly news and it's around Christmas time, I might dig in my drawer and find somethin' to give that po' homeless guy, so I can feel guilty before the tax write-off man comes." You know? [Laughs.] People never really understand until it actually happens to them.

When we was in New Orleans, this lady used to come down every weekend and throw eggs at the homeless. I don't mean physical eggs. I mean verbally: "Why don't you bums get a job?!" She was one of those high, city council-type people. Then when they had that flood and her house got wiped out, now she's one of the biggest outreach workers they got down there. Now she can't do enough for the homeless. Why? Because it took an act of God to get her off her high horse. You understand what I'm sayin'?

But they could do a lot more than what they're doing. They ain't that slow when it comes to building a prison! They can always seem to find prison room. Can't find no shelter, you know, buildings for battered and abused women. But they can always build a prison! You know, a lady gettin' beat up by her boyfriend. "Oh, we're sorry. We don't have bed space we got so many people." But they got that prison. Better go out and shoot that fool! You understand what I'm sayin'? It's all relative.

Just hope that you never go through it. This is none of that Jack Kerouac thing where everybody decides "let's go Beatnik around the country." This is crap. See, back then, it was a movement to change things around. Now it's just somethin' that happens to your butt. You can't control the circumstances, but you can control how you live and operate within those circumstances. There's nothin' romantic about it. You can go to jail out here just for bein' sleepy and tired. You can. You can be layin' up under that tree. Cop don't like you, you can go to jail for vagrancy or whatever he decides to come up with. In other words, just being honest, just being sober, just bein' safe ain't no guarantee that you ain't gonna get harassed.

Most of the time, when you give money to people on the street, you're participating in their genocide because you know they're going to go out and buy liquor. You know they're going to go out there and buy crack. When people come up and say, "I never see you drunk no more, here," "I know that you're really tryin', here," when somebody gives me money, they are helping with my liberation. Big difference. If I was strung out, then they would be participating in my genocide 'cause I'm actually fightin' not to die.

See, I am a dying breed: an honest bum in America. [Laughs.] I'm serious. You know, that's an enigma nowadays. You know? Politicians are crooked. Preachers are crooked. Cops are scary and crooked. You understand what I'm sayin'? Can't look to your leaders no more for leadership. Can't be a role model no more. You know? All the decent heroes and Lone Ranger croaked.

So what's left? Guys like me. See, at least when I go, God say, "Well, what have you got to say fo' yo'self?" I can say, "Yeah, I was a bum, but I was an honest bum. Run the tape." I ain't got to look over my shoulder. You understand? I did some really dumb stuff, which I pass on to the growin' up of my youth. But as I get older, I get straighter. So you can run this tape. At least I can go out like dat.


LaManda Long
Alvernon and Blacklidge

WHEN I MET LaMANDA Long, she had recently been released from prison, where she had served two years for an illegal transfer of funds that helped her young son receive a heart transplant. After her release, LaManda stayed in Bethany House, a shelter for homeless women and children. A mother, a grandmother and an accountant, she had just found a job and an apartment when I interviewed her. She had also acquired legal guardianship of the seven children of one of her former inmate friends.

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, March 22, 1955. I'm Indian, Irish and black. I stayed in Cleveland until I was 18 years old. I went to Jane Adams Vocational High School in Cleveland. You had to basically be a 4- or 5-point average. I was always a 4.5 average. It was like goin' to college. I majored in legal secretary and minored in cake decorating. I also am a certified public accountant. I took those courses while I was in the service, and I have a master's degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve.

I joined the U.S. Air Force when I was 19. I served two years. Then I moved to California. In California, I worked for the engineering department of an automobile club. During that time, I was also a dance choreographer for several stage shows. My second job I worked in Vegas and Reno and Atlantic City. So I did a lot. As a teenager, I danced. I had a dance group called the Majestics. We danced all over Cleveland and New York--modern dance, modern jazz. We won awards for it. I loved being a choreographer. It was an interesting, adventurous time in my life. I didn't have children then. My goodness, I did it up until I was 25, and I had my baby. After he was born, I still danced until I was about 29.

When I turned 30 years old, I became very sick. I've always had a heart condition. I've had it ever since I was a child. I had rheumatic fever as a child. It scarred my heart. I had my first heart attack in the military. I was sick after that. My oldest son at that time was 5 or 6. Also, he was very sick. He had problems with his lungs--fluid in his lungs. His lungs had collapsed. Also he had problems with his heart. It started when he was born and just continued.

I did what any mother would do. I wanted to make sure my son had the medicine he needed to have. He also needed hospitalization during that time. I couldn't pay for that. I had Aetna insurance. Aetna insurance pays 80 percent of your bill. The other 20 percent ran into way over $75,000. It was very high. I called the American Heart Association. I called the Lung Association. They said there was a waiting list. They were putting him on a waiting list! You don't have time for a waiting list when your son's in need, so I did my time for getting money to take care of my son basically. I guess I'd rather put it another way: to be able to keep my son alive, because he wouldn't be here today.

I knew when I did it, I'd go. I knew I was headed to prison. I believe that you get punished right here on earth for what you do. I'm very honest. I expected it. What I didn't expect was what happened with my kids. I didn't expect people to turn around and turn on you that have been with you all your life. I didn't expect people not to come and ask me, "Why?" I did not expect that. I learned a very hard lesson.

I was inside a little over two years. I was released January 28, 1999. I was here in Manzanita Unit [of the Arizona State Department of Corrections]. A lady from the prison ministries picked me up and took me to Bethany House, and that was hard. They were not expecting me. I had nothing but the clothes on my back. First they told me that I probably needed to train in some category of how to find a job. I explained to them I didn't need that because I'm very well educated, and I know how to find a job. I proved that by finding one in five days. I found this apartment in seven weeks.

The job is a document reviewer. I review documents for attorneys that are going to trial or to prepare them for trial. I found this apartment through Primavera Services. They gave me a list of apartments, and I basically did a lot of praying. I called two apartments and explained to the lady here my situation, and the manager was very nice. I came over and was able to get the apartment. Yes, they did need a security deposit. Travelers Aid [a resource for homeless and near-homeless populations] paid for that. Their basic requirement was that you had to have a job and that you had children.

I have seven children, plus my own. I have guardianship of all seven. I met their mother when I was in prison. At the time I met her, she was pregnant with [the youngest]. She was wondering what she was going to do with her children. She raised her children a certain way, just as I did. It touched me because my own children were divided up while I was doing my time. I have three of my own. Guess I really should say six because I have three stepchildren that I raised, too, and they were all affected.

What made me take these children? This woman did for her kids basically what I did for mine. She had seven kids she couldn't feed. She got an abundance of food stamps she shouldn't have gotten to feed her children. If this shows you anything about our system: Instead of the judge taking those children, taking her, giving her a social worker or giving her some sort of guidance, maybe even giving her a lot of community service and many years of probation, he sent her to prison for trying to feed her children. There's something wrong with that. This woman is serving seven and a half years. There are people who serve less time for pulling a gun and shooting someone. I see something wrong with the system.

I've seen so many women divided from their children. I've seen so many women whose children were put up for adoption while they were in prison. Some of them had only gone to prison for really minor things. You're only going to be there for four to five months.

No one is perfect. There are a lot of mistakes made in this world. I made one. I made one in helping my children. There are a lot of officials and politicians who have made many mistakes in this world and are still acceptable, still on television. But when you're a normal citizen, and you make a mistake, it's not acceptable. You are actually the bad penny in society. It's very hard to clean that up.


Samuel Manuel Hernandez Martinez
Presidio Park

SAMUEL IS A CAN collector and pushes his "buggy" for miles each day. He can be seen heading to the Greyhound Bus station, the attorneys' offices, the Transamerica Building or Presidio Park, where he stations himself near the hot-dog lady. Since 1991, he has helped her clean up in exchange for leftover dogs and coke. Sam is always moving, constantly reaching into public waste receptacles, crunching cans, and exchanging greetings. He used to live in a house he filled with thousands of empty aluminum cans, while he slept on the porch. Now he lives in the corner of a warehouse that stores cappuccino carts, where he claims to be the "night watchman."

I was born September 15, 1903, in Morris, Kansas, Wyandotte Reservation. Father was born in Guadalajara. His name was Roberto Martínez. My mother's name was Maria Beatrice Shaw. She was Sioux Indian. My mother was born in Guthrie, Okla. She was real light with sandy hair. I got 10 different tribes in me. I got Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, Warsaw, Aztec, Buffalo, Sioux, Tomahawk, Mohawk and Cherryhawk. That's it.

I lived on a farm 'til about 18. I enjoyed the farm--walking the field, picking up the beans and gatherin' the vegetables. I picked cotton in Oklahoma.

At 18, I went to St. Joseph's, Mo. I went to O'Bryant School in St. Joe. We stayed there, and then we went to Detroit, Mich. In Detroit, I stayed with my mother's sister. I went to school there. In 1918, I went to conservatory school. It was a Russian school. I know a little Croatian and Polish. I went to school in Kansas and Oklahoma, too. See, I had folks in Oklahoma, Kansas and El Paso. I had full grandparents over in Chihuahua and Guadalajara, sisters and brothers there, too.

I jobbed around in different places. Then I went back to school and went to anatomical school in college. That was free work. I was learning the trade. I worked at grocery stores, drug stores, Walgreen's in Chicago. In Detroit, I worked at the airport loading mailbags. I worked for Safeway, put things on the shelf and cleaned the back room, got rid of junk. I worked on the Rock Island Railroad, Pullman porter in Chicago. I made the berths in Chicago and Omaha. I was just looking for work, running here and there. I saved my money and then go and divide it with my parents and grandparents.

Then I went to a sugar-beet farm in Eerie, Mich. That's a slavery farm. I picked 'em. They were about the size of a watermelon, 35 to 40 pounds. I was working pretty good. I was making $995 a week. You worked up there. You didn't play. You worked.

I was married three times. All of them passed, too. Alicia--I met her in Mexico City at the airport. She was a ticket agent. She was in her 30s when we got married. She was older than I was. And Cuca. She's from Chihuahua. I met Cuca around '43, during wartime. The third wife, she was from Little Rock; that's all I can tell you. I can't tell you how old she was. I didn't keep her very long. Maybe six months. She was a good-time people, spent money.

I'm the day watchman right here in this park. When I first started, I was looking for license numbers. Yeah. Out-of-date. I caught 44 car thieves. I caught three sets of dope peddlers right here. Right here, I caught three sets of dope peddlers. I caught a man right down the street there. They were looking for him for 45 years. I caught him. I got a man in the court up here. I caught him with a gun in the Supreme Court. I got another building here. I found two $4 million payroll checks in the trash. I didn't cash 'em. I turned them in to the Bank of America. They belong to the government. You can't cash that kind of stuff.

I go and get my cans. That's how I make my living. That's how I get my extra cash. I don't get paid. I'm working here free. I've been collecting cans for 16 years, ever since I've been here. I started the first year I come here. Right now, times are kind of hard. Back in the '30s, things were hard. Times are hard right now, too. See, people are not drinking the pop like they used to.

I get up at four o'clock in the morning. I wash my face and hands, comb my hair, get ready, and go buy my breakfast. Some mornings, I don't go eat 'cause I don't have the money. Have to go find my cans first. Go sell 'em, then come back. I eat right down the street on Stone. I get potatoes and tortillas. A lot of that takes the place of meat. I don't like a whole lotta meat. Meat is not good for you. Meat's got rickets in 'em. That's worms. Yeah, didn't you know that? Meat is not healthy for you. Snakes, rabbits, coons, deer, bear--I don't eat that kind of stuff.

I go to the doctor every 90 days. I go next month for a checkup. I gotta get my teeth fixed. I only got seven teeth. Yeah, that's all. I don't drink, and I don't smoke. No tobacco and no alcohol. I've always been that way. I don't like to be around people when they're smokin' and drinkin'. And when I had a house, I didn't allow no smokin' or drinkin' in the house.

I leave here at 3:30 p.m., and I go home. I head back. It takes me about an hour. My buggy is heavy--weighs about 400 pounds. I've got about a mile to walk. I night-watch over there at the coffee shop. I night-watch over there. I just watch the shop. I used to mop up, but I quit moppin'. I don't sweep. I've been there 10 years.

When I get home, I put my coffee pot on. Wash my clothes at night, dry 'em, hang 'em up and then change clothes. Put some more on, fresh the next day. Take a bath three times a week. Yeah. Wednesday and Saturday. I take another bath because I go to church on Sunday morning. I get up early enough, take a bath Sunday morning before I go to church. I'm used to it. That's the way grandmother used to wash us. I still have the same idea. That's what water is for.

I read the newspaper--the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune--and the Bible. The newspaper and the Bible, in Spanish and Jewish. I understand a little of four languages--enough to carry me through: Jewish, Spanish, Indian, English and a little German. I go to the Catholic church, but I'm Jewish. I go every Sunday and Monday to church--Guadalupe on 36th Street.

I talk to my people every day. I talk about different things, what happened years ago--that's all. Every day, I enjoy talking to 'em. I talk to them right here in the park, and a lot of people look at me. There's 46 of 'em up there. I got aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, grandparents and cousins. They inform and advise me. Yeah, they're with me now. They're hollerin'. They're not talkin' to me. They're laughin' and talkin' and enjoying themselves. Sounds funny. But that's the way it is.

In five years, I'll be 100 years old. I'm 95 now. What I know is when my time come, just be ready. That's all I can tell you. My parents always said, "When your time come, be ready." That's all. I don't plan on nothing.

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