A center works to serve the homeless in Tucson when some have given up

No one knows much about Nancy except for her New Jersey roots and that she could always be found at the Jardín de Cesar Chavez picking up trash Wednesdays at dawn in exchange for some breakfast and a hot cup of coffee.

"She had her ups and downs but she was a nice lady," a friend says. "You see that bench with the trashcan next to it? She'd sit there with her walking stick."

It's a Wednesday morning at Sister José's Women's Center—a year-round, Monday through Saturday refuge for women without stability. This morning, Nancy didn't show up at the neighboring garden. It was the first time in months she wasn't there, and her sisters-by-circumstance knew something was wrong. Later, they found out Nancy had passed away on the streets the previous day from unknown causes.

Nancy was homeless for many year, and a regular at Sister José's. This morning, there aren't that many women in here, but the small white house usually sees up to 60—of all ages, some are natives to Tucson, some American Indians, others from the other side of the country, and as far as Sweden, Russia and the Philippines.

The 5-year-old nonprofit is trying hard to catch the women who fall through the cracks of the system. Stories like Nancy's are too common.

At least between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., these women can turn to Sister José. There, they have access to a shower and bathroom, a washer and dryer, clean clothes and underwear, shoes that fit, food and beverages. But at the core of it all is the feeling that, despite domestic abuse, poverty or addiction, they deserve respect.

"Aside from the 1 percent, we are all a paycheck away from this situation," says Michele Vick, a volunteer with Sister José for about eight months. "I am retired from the Air Force. I live off my pension and Social Security. If the government went broke tomorrow, I would be with these women. I know I am here to serve them, so while I am here, I am serving them. If one of them needs to scream for 30 minutes or pace back-and-worth, we let them do it. We might be the only place where they are able to be themselves."

Sister José gets its financial lifeline from donations and volunteers, and a small grant here and there. Unfortunately, these are all scarce.

As one woman puts it, if the entire community helped out, the city of Tucson would never again have to worry about homeless women.

The Cycle

Erica found Sister José five months ago. The 27-year-old was facing her second bout with homelessness.

"I slept at Santa Rita Park. I would sleep at the top of the bleachers because that is where I felt safe. I could see everything," she says, holding the right side of her abdomen. Her ex-boyfriend beat her two weeks ago, and her ribs might be broken. "I'd be sitting there... would see men masturbate from far away, saying nasty things to me. Men driving in their cars, following me. I was alone. I didn't have nobody. I didn't have friends."

She first came face-to-face with homelessness at age 14, after she permanently ran away from one of the many foster families she stayed with. Her father died when she was 10, and her mom just took off (she, too, was homeless at some point). Her grandmother adopted Erica's siblings, but for some reason she was left out of that equation and was placed in a group home.

She came close to being kidnapped and taken to New York, where she says she would have been forced into prostitution. Around the same time, she met the father of her five children.

"This is why I was so in love, because he is the one who got me off the streets," she says. They were together for 12 years. "I have not seen or talked to him in two weeks. Of course I am sad, I love him. When he is not mad, he is amazing, but he is very violent. He would beat me up in front of my kids. He told my daughter, when he was punching me, 'don't be a bitch so your husband doesn't beat you.'"

During her latest encounter with the streets, Erica considered getting help at Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, but she doesn't have the custody of her kids, which means she's at a lower priority for shelter, she says. Last year, she had a steady job, was on food stamps and landed a nice Section 8 home. But a fight with her boyfriend led to police involvement, which led to a drug test and testing positive for heroin. She lost the house, the food stamps, and her kids are now in foster care. It triggered her to go on a heroin binge.

Today, Erica sits on a cot at Sister José, feeling proud that she's been off drugs for a few months. Having a place to clean up, eat and meet other women in similar circumstances helped her find clarity. Every morning, she heads to the methadone clinic for small doses to treat the withdrawal symptoms. Other days, she visits with her Department of Child Safety case manager. "I'm going to fight for my kids," she says. Her friend Selena sits beside her. (Selena had overdosed and nearly died one week before. "It's hard to stay sober on the streets," she says. Her hopes are in soon getting approved for free rehabilitation.)

Recently, Erica and her mother reconnected. Her mom's been sober for years, and found a good job that lets her help Erica pay for an apartment since May. A home base is key in the recovery process, and it'll facilitate getting her kids back. She hasn't been able to find a job that accommodates her visits to the methadone clinic, and the ones with a flexible schedule aren't OK with a shoplifting conviction in her record.

Erica's lucky, though. Most other homeless single women don't have a family member looking out for them.

"This place means a lot, I love this place," she says.

These days, Erica comes to Sister José mainly for safety. Her ex-boyfriend is out of prison and knows where her apartment is.

A Roof Over Your Head

On paper it may seem that there are enough beds to go around, but that's not the case. For instance, shelters that are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development require people to have an ID—a rule that confuses the hell out of social service providers. They also screen for drug and alcohol. If you're intoxicated, you have to go. That leaves a whole lot of people without a bed for the night.

"I'm not sure why," says Tom Litwicki, chairman of the Tucson/Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness, and CEO of Old Pueblo Community Services. "I am working to establish bridge housing for those refused shelter," he says in an email. "Bridge housing is like shelter but you don't have to leave during the day. You can live there while a navigator helps you get into permanent housing."

If you do get into a shelter like the Salvation Army, there is a seven-day limit, unless you're enrolled in Pima County's Sullivan Jackson employment program. Getting into one of those involves another set of rules: addicts have to get clean beforehand and, as homeless activist Michele Ream puts it, it's unrealistic to expect someone with a serious mental illness or who's been on the streets chronically, will be able to sit through a training. Ream has also been a long-time critic of the way people are treated at shelters, which she says turn places that are supposed to be safe havens into boot camp-like environments.

Old Pueblo is trying to move away from that "recover first and then we'll help you" mentality.

"If you have an addiction or a mental illness and you are disruptive to the environment, you can't stay there. Basically saying, 'we can't give you shelter until you are fixed,'" says Nancy Jones, Old Pueblo Community Service's director of development. "Many of us here are looking at this differently. Regardless of where you are in a substance abuse cycle or a mental illness cycle, you get housing first and that puts us in a better position to work out those other issues." One of these shelters is already available for homeless veterans, she adds.

There are churches, such as the Central City Assembly of God, that don't have the ID protocol in place or day limits, but the services are for men only. (They are currently fighting to get more funding, too.)

In the case of Sister José, they don't have enough room or volunteers to open overnight or at least into the evening. Also, their current space only allows for 10 beds. (November through March is the only time they are open every night from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. Their goal is to function all day, every day, the entire year.)

The center has been trying to expand for years. But neighborhood associations, contractors and landlords have to be on board with low-income housing and homeless shelters. As Sister José searches for a bigger facility, they have gotten big, fat no's from certain neighborhoods, according to Charlotte Speers, Sister José's secretary. Residents are concerned with houseless people sleeping on sidewalks and parks, but in a twist of logic they are also opposed to having places nearby that will get the houseless off the sidewalks and parks.

Urban Camping

The Tucson City Council is reworking a so-called urban camping ban ordinance. But this time it won't be about creating new prohibitions on where houseless people can or cannot sleep, rather about looking through the restrictions that already exist and combining them.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik says the new approach is "clarity, consistency and compassion."

He is aware that, yes, there are emergency shelters available, but not everyone qualifies for a bed. That's where faith-based facilities need to step up and help bridge that gap, he says. He is tired of churches arguing the city needs to be more compassionate, but many don't offer solutions.

"The other group I am also tired of hearing from is the business community. I absolutely appreciate and am sympathetic toward the guy looking out (for his business), the city ought to be confronting a lot of issues, but the business community can step up financially in some way," he says. "A lot of the shelters are short of cash. Places that have a cot and a meal, that is where I want to see the dollars funneled."

In March, an urban camping ban ordinance landed on the council's agenda, without any input from the community. Reportedly, it was the handy work of Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin and the Tucson Police Department, triggered by Safe Park and its health and public safety baggage.

The ordinance would have prohibited people from sleeping on the sidewalks, or any other public property, such as alleys, streets and empty lots. Many activists called it the criminalization of homelessness. But even without something of that caliber in place, TPD officers issue tickets left and right for sleeping on sidewalks, and the city evicts people who camp at parks, with threats of arrest or more tickets if they don't leave. Most recently, the city shut down Safe Park—Veinte de Agosto Park—for an intense cleanup session. For lack of bathrooms (even though homeless occupants applied for a permit to install a portable toilet, they say), the place and surrounding area filled up with human waste. In March, the Pima County Department of Health cited both the city of Tucson and the county for violating the health code. But the cycle continues—people need a place to be, and if there aren't bathrooms available, they will use the outdoors.

Tucson homeless activist Anthony Potter is a regular at City Council meetings, making lots of noise against the urban camping ban and what he sees as police abuse. (At the July 7 meeting, he was arrested. He's been dragged out of several others.) Earlier in the year, he drafted a Homeless Bill of Rights that includes the right to rest and camp on public land, and use the bathroom outside when no other option is available. He's been fighting for the city to vote on it without much support.

Phoenix-based advocates Michelle Lewis and Angel Garcia made their way down to Tucson to document the corroded relationship between the city and the houseless population. They helped kill an urban camping ban in the Phoenix area and want to do the same here.

"Sleep deprivation is being committed, harassment, cops will come like every two or three hours and wake people up," Lewis says. She's been sleeping at Tucson parks and downtown sidewalks to be a watchdog. She says that, recently, TPD officers issued a couple dozen citations to houseless people sitting too close to the entrance of the Pima County Library downtown. It was raining that day, and they didn't want to get wet.

"I try to teach basic human rights, assure them that they do have rights," she says.

Having Each Other's Backs

One of the women Erica met at Sister José moved into her apartment recently. She has the room and figured, at least there is one less on the streets.

They plan to host meetings and get the word out about Sister José. Tell the women there is a place out there that has their backs, unconditionally.

"My roommate, Tanya, she told me other night, 'You don't understand how good it feels to lock the door and know I am safe," Erica says. "I see women like my mom, like Selena, like Tanya and it makes me want to fight for these women. I was out there too. I want women to know that there are other women going through the same thing. But we are trying. We are trying to be safe."

One week after Nancy's death, the women at Sister José held a memorial at the Cesar Chavez garden, underneath the tree where she'd sit with her walking stick.

There was an abundance of prayers, donuts and hot coffee.

After a joint chant of "Amazing Grace," they begin making their way back to the center to prepare for another day of service.

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