From the Ashes

A local social service agency ponders its next move after an arson fire destroys a building and its contents

As Libby Wright watched her organization's building off South Rosemont Avenue near East 22nd Street smolder in the early morning hours of March 1, she thought about the group of homeless children who visited the building just the week before, excited at the possibilities of moving into a new shelter.

Wright, executive director of The Giving Tree, says she wondered how she would explain the fire to the children. That blaze destroyed what would have been the faith-based social-service agency's third homeless shelter, with capacity for 10 families, and would have housed a job-training and after-school program run by the organization.

Wright was distraught that morning as she watched a backhoe dig into the fallen roof to reveal the charred remains of what were once brand-new washers and dryers, bed frames, sewing machines and computers.

Three weeks later, Wright says she is less troubled by the images of the building in ruin, and more troubled by the children who thought they'd have a new place to call home.

"We had 90 UA students coming to put some finishing touches on March 1. It was going to be a wonderful, exciting day," Wright says.

"At the time (of the fire), I was just devastated. Now I've been counseling the children. Homeless children have so many issues and trauma in their lives. They are having nightmares and coming home sick from school. Some think someone is going to burn them."

According to Capt. Norm Carlton, of the Tucson Fire Department, the fire was caused by arson and is being investigated through the Tucson Police Department's arson-investigation unit. According to TPD officials, the investigation is ongoing, and no suspects have been identified.

Wright said she hopes Tucson Police continue the investigation. Meanwhile, Wright and her staff continue to operate the two other homeless shelters and a church/center, as well as a feeding program in an empty lot off East 22nd Street. It's at the feeding program where most of The Giving Tree clients first discover the agency, and Wright says it's where many volunteers and workers first understand the magnitude of hungry people and homeless children in Tucson's Eastside.

"Normally you don't see these people, people who are hungry," Wright says. "You don't see homeless children. But once you do and understand that these peoples' basic needs aren't being met, you do something."

If you're watching local TV news coverage, chances are you won't see homeless children there, either.

Take last week's coverage. The top story on many local newscasts concerned the 700-plus Chihuahuas rescued from an overcrowded puppy mill. Follow-up stories about the March 1 fire that destroyed The Giving Tree's building were relegated to slots later in the newscasts.

Those TV-news stories resulted in about $50,000 being collected for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, which handled the rescue of the Chihuahuas. Wright says about $7,000 has been collected thus far for The Giving Tree.

The facility destroyed by the fire was an old church building, being remodeled by Wright and volunteers, a property valued at $775,000. The Giving Tree had gotten special deal and secured a loan to buy the property for $200,000.

"We were in the process of buying it. We had a loan, but the title had not transferred. We moved in the month before and got the keys. The night before (the fire), we brought in seven truckloads. We had brand-new computers still in the box, and scanners, sewing machines and washers and dryers. Everything you would need to start."

Because the title on the property hadn't transferred when the fire occurred, the building and its contents were not yet insured. Wright says the agency has insurance on all its facilities and would have insured this newest building once it was officially Giving Tree property.

"I really don't know what's going to happen," she says. "I drive around and look at these empty buildings. Prices are reduced, and I know the economy right now is a buyers' market, but we don't have enough money to buy. Another loan is not an option at this time."

Wright says the bank is taking a wait-and-see approach due to liability issues, because the agency began to move in before the title transfer.

"There was some concern about that," Wright says.

The loss of the building, however, will not have a direct impact on the agency's ongoing programs, Wright says. However, the equipment and furnishings are lost, as is what would have been an almost perfect building.

Despite the tragedy, work at The Giving Tree goes on.

"We're still the catch-all. We have people being discharged from the hospital and being sent to us in taxis," Wright says. "There's never enough (shelter space). Everybody refers to everybody to try to get their clients off the streets, or not on the streets to begin with. Different agencies are overloaded.

"We believe in housing first. Nobody is capable of moving forward without it."