Tucson Salvage

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Brian Smith

Constable Bennett Bernal has stories of the broken and the dead.

He arrived alone to a trailer park one day to serve a woman an eviction notice. He knocked on the trailer door, no answer. Moments later he entered the place using the landlord's key. The tin-foiled windows made everything dark so he flicked on his flashlight. A window air-conditioner humming in the back bedroom meant the power wasn't shut off. Thank god, he thought. Still, the trailer's interior, grim and private, smelled foul like raw meat in a dead refrigerator. He shone his light toward the bedroom and the mannequin on the bed had the same comforter he owns, the very one he uses for his sole companions, dogs Zeus and Nation. Weird. He stepped closer, swore to himself it was a mannequin on the bed, its dark-circled eyes and black-and-white face looked painted on, a prop for some other horror show. Closer still and he saw the small-caliber gun, clutched in the mannequin's hand, up and parallel to her head.

The poor thirtysomething woman, who he had hoped to help, is cold and dead.

Even the coroner said later she looked mannequinesque, strange and kept. Must have been the air-conditioner.

A suicide ride, and Bernal was shattered. That was his third day as a constable, nine years ago.

* * *

I am riding shotgun to
the constable and we pull up to an apartment complex on a hot June morning and he asks if I want to slip on his bulletproof vest. "If you don't, I will," he says.

You need it more, I say.

We see a trio of tight-faced Oro Valley detectives waiting at the apartment office, one woman, two gents, all wearing vests. It is a faceless stucco tenement on Yavapai Street in a dispossessed section of Tucson. The detectives are here to arrest a woman, said to be squatting in the same apartment in which Bernal is serving a final eviction. There might be guns, dogs. The complex manager tells us people go in and out all hours, "drug activity."

We walk around to the back of the complex, arrive at the apartment door. Constable Bernal begins pounding on it, shouting "Larry, open the door." No response. He pounds some more. Nada. I've hidden from eviction folks before in my life, so I know the drill, at least the part about hiding inside until the knocking goes away. But this guy and wanted woman have been squatting here since February. They are not going away.

The detectives position themselves at three separate points, 10 feet back from the door. One tells me he'd feel better if I stood behind an exterior wall. You never know, a single shotgun blast to a vest-free chest.

Finally, Bernal inserts the door key but the lock has been changed. The manager appears with a drill but the lock won't budge, so Bernal pushes his full limbs in through the window and falls inside, things topple over. The door opens. Cops enter. No one home. All clear.

The interior shows a place flagrant with need, its silence a breathing thing of desperation. A soiled red-velvet chair and a table hosting an unopened mini-box of Corn Pops. A dirty COVID-19 mask on the un-swept floor, a dark and disheveled African tapestry of sundry animals covers a wall. A bookshelf holding a single high-top sneaker occupies an otherwise empty dirty bedroom. You can smell shed skin of the anxious, almost taste the DNA. The apartment as a quick metaphor for busted times: the Great Depression-rivaling unemployment rate, the 110k dead, a country burning, an illiterate racist Mook-In-Chief, a vacancy of soul. This one-bedroom apartment is America doing great again.

* * *

Bernal is an elected official
with a bulletproof vest. He is a constable, an elected county peace officer in Justice Precinct 6, one of 10 constables in Pima County.

Essentially a constable serves civil and criminal papers from Pima Justice Court and attendant agencies. He is not a law-enforcement officer, he tells me. Yes, his work is divided up serving criminal summons for court appearances, civil infractions, orders of protection, as well as evictions notices. Much of his is shoe-leather work, knocking on door after door to experience despair face-to-face. He is a person no one wants to have knocking on their door, because he is the person who brings bad news. He knows this. He tells of one crazy who came at him with a baseball bat, the one time Bernal drew his weapon, and he was scared. He has his share of enemies too, namely landlords.

But here is the thing: Bernal's work extends well beyond the constable job description, every day of the week and many nights. He works with (and for) the ill, the mentally challenged, the addicted, the unemployed, the broken, while negotiating strict rules and sometimes arrogant judges on behalf of said undeserving, the red-tape of state statutes and funding. His working relationships with all manner of organizations run deep, from fight-the-good-fight nonprofits such as the Gospel Rescue Mission and the Old Pueblo Community Services to the federally funded Tucson Section 8 Housing Program and many others. The dozens of animal-rescue organizations. It is nonstop effort with no seeming center, and no endgame in sight except saving people from homelessness.

We are riding in Bernal's gray Hyundai midsize. He wears black tactical pants, and his badge hangs over his heart. His shorn gray-black hair presses flat to his head and forms spiked bangs over a widow's peak and a rich brown forehead. He has the kind of expression that suggests he's about to tell a joke and I'm forever waiting for one. I'm guessing his face helps in his work. He sips from his unsweetened iced tea, makes a turn, and says, "Poor people deserve better." He adds, "The process itself is not working." He will go off on specific people not doing their jobs, a few cops or judges or landlords. It stands to reason; those types get in his way. To balance, he'll credit the good ones, and there are many.

He boils his work down to a simple essence: He only wants to help people, he loves people. I'd call bullshit on most anyone else saying that in such work, the PR gab, but I believe him. I've seen it. Folks who know him and work with him say the same goddamned thing. He sees his role as vessel for help rather than an enforcer of laws, and has been known to push boundaries of those laws to delay evictions of those in need, doing right in lieu of the expedient.

Terry Galligan is the deputy director of the City of Tucson's Housing and Community Development Department, after years spent grant writing and directly helping the homeless with Old Pueblo Community Services. Galligan met Bernal 20 years ago when Bernal was a City Council aide. He doesn't see Bernal in the traditional role of constable, just serving papers, getting people out.

"He's more advocacy, helping to head off the evictions," he says. "But he is not naïve. If someone is selling drugs he's not going to help them keep their apartment."

Bernal, along with other Pima County constables, including Indivisible Tucson organizer Kristen Randall and former political reporter Joe Ferguson, represent a new breed of local constables, a kind of social worker tuned into needs of the hurting who listen to understand the problems and establish solutions inside a fairly complex set of rules, ordinances, routes to aide and grayer areas of discretion. Bernal is a kind of conduit between the poor and law gatekeepers. "It is in their best interest to go to court to help get resources and a stay of eviction," he says. "A huge percentage of the people who get evicted don't go to court."

Last year the constable's office implemented an effort called "minute entries," which means hand-delivered pamphlets for community services and advance court notices so people are better prepared for an eviction, which can happen in a matter of days in Arizona. Right now, in the coronavirus era, if a tenant proves COVID-19 hardships or conditions that make them susceptible, or cares for a home-bound school-age child, they could get a reprieve under Gov. Ducey's short-sighted executive order, delaying eviction enforcement until July 22. But there are forms to fill out and proof to provide, which isn't easy for some.

Between mid-March and June 1, Bernal served no evictions due to the pandemic unless there was proof of criminal activity or damage to the property. Beginning June 1, he had to begin serving notices to those who have not qualified for the Ducey order. He knows the handful of situations and names in his district of those in danger of eviction right now, the few evicted have secured places to go.

Problem is, Bernal elaborates, there is a confusing amount of paperwork for eviction prevention, pandemic or no, and now an agonizing long wait for financial assistance and a backlog of applications, and many, including some we talked to today, are only just now receiving their unemployment checks, after waiting weeks or months. This after the $1.4 billion pumped into unemployment assistance through the state's Department of Economic Security. Long waits for assistance, Bernal adds, need to be communicated to landlords. He knows and works with many, the good ones, as well as the mercenary ones who don't want to deal with this. Worse, a tenant's unpaid rent will be due when Ducey's order expires, unless a landlord steps in and negotiates.

The shit hits the fan on July 23 and Bernal's job will get much more difficult. June and July 2019 in Pima County there were 656 total evictions, now it's on track to be a few hundred more, even with the pandemic moratorium.

"You know what?" he says. "That is another story. I am hopeful, though. You got the city working on things, the county, the state and new federal funding, the non-profits. And the landlords."

"We need to learn from this pandemic," he adds. "What we need is more time. There needs to be state statute that allows more time for the evicted. It would save so many from losing their homes. Everybody needs to play a part in this."

Fear is the best motivator, he tells me, if a landlord loses 10 tenants, and then 10 more, and then 10 more... "They don't want to see people leaving, who's going to fill in the gaps? The landlords are smart, they know the numbers, they are better served working with the tenants."

But tenants behind in payments will be kicked out on July 23, as it stands now. This is a fraction of the news Bernal delivers today. And I'm shocked at the number of people facing eviction now unaware of Ducey's order, but who easily qualify. Bernal is not surprised. It fuels his work. One of his concentrated areas, Ward 3, is an impoverished section of Tucson that includes the North Oracle Road corridor and areas between Stone and First Avenue. He estimates the rental properties are split 50-50 between family owned and corporate owned. The family-owned ones are suffering too.

In the hours I accompany him, it is a vaudeville of driving, parking and knocking in those dispossessed Tucson neighborhoods, no bulletproof vest needed. The weight of the stories and humanity he faces each day, each hour, this close-up view into a preventable aspect of the wretched nature of the world, would be an emotional burden of godless proportion for anyone. A dread wells up inside me before each door. Bernal steps in an unjaded gait.

He says he would never evict a single mother or elderly person, there is always a way to get them shelter.

* * *

Bernal grew up on Tucson's
southside, a kid of Mexican, Yaqui and Irish descent, and never knew he was poor until he found work as a teen in the late 1970s, starting as a dishwasher at the Tucson Racquet Club. He would bring home food others would throw away, dubbed himself "the human disposal," and he was appalled at the crap privileged kids would leave behind, pricey kicks and tennis racquets, clothing and jewelry. The haves and the have nots.

From there he met folks, landed his first community work, constituent service, for the storied Ed Moore, the former Pima County supervisor, in 1993. He went on to work for many others, including City Council members Paul Cunningham and Kathleen Dunbar, and sweated one-on-one with neighborhood associations. He worked with tenants to solve problems, such as adding streetlights in dark neighborhoods ("You have no idea what one has to go through to get even streetlights"), getting electrical and plumbing structures up-to-date, working inside community-investment programs to help countless folks, including native tribes battling obesity and diabetes, even organizing chess clubs. His accomplishment list of service is endless. Bernal never got on with his old man, a tough ex-Marine and sheriff's deputy abusive to his librarian mother. He spent much time growing up with his grandma on 22nd Street directly across from Santa Rita park. Watching his father's treatment of his mother helped him develop empathy for abandoned or abused mothers.

Cirrhosis got his grandfather, who, prior to his death, made the young Bernal promise, at age 9, to never drink. Bernal kept his pledge, a lifelong teetotaler.

He learned certain kindnesses at a tender age. His grandparents were always feeding folks in the neighborhood. Though they never had much, "We always had beans and tortillas." He had baseball, football and basketball across the street at the park. "It was heaven." It's not that trouble never found him as a kid, he was just never arrested.

Bernal was bused to Catalina High and graduated, attended Pima Community and UA but left for public service. His knowledge of the nuances, the nooks and crannies and people of interior Tucson, the hardened and the broken, could never be schooled. He was born in Tucson and never left: "I never wanted to live anywhere else." His career dream? To become a city councilman.

* * *

His cellphone rings and
it is on speaker, a woman with a shaky voice hardened into aggressiveness. She is confused and frightened about the eviction paperwork he left on her door. She is not well, a fissure in her intestines complicated by whooping cough, immune-system compromised. He talks her calmly through the steps, the health checklist he left with her and Ducey's executive order, the note she needs from her doctor, her court date, all in a calibrated work lingo tinted with concern. The sound of his voice calms her, the unsaid understanding Bernal is on her side. By call's end, she thanks him, profusely.

We are facing a couple in the open doorway of their apartment. The pressurized interior, the trapped lives, despair, fear and agitation. A shirtless dad with a chest-length beard and toddler at his knees, the nervous wife who lost her caretaking job due to the pandemic. A prepubescent boy peers through a gap in the blinds, his hands flat against the smudged window, as if hoping for Santa Claus. They are a banana-peel slip from homelessness. She just received a long-delayed unemployment check and their eviction was postponed. Bernal facilitated their communication with the landlord. He reiterates their need to contact the court to let them know an arrangement is in place. They will, they say, nodding. I watch their faces downshift from distress to something resembling joy, which I see as relief.

It is easy to catalog this couple's circumstantial shortcomings and it would be easier for Bernal to tell this family everything will be great, a lie they would be grateful for. But it might not be OK. A soothing fib will only come back and bite him. He won't lie, a rosy scenario will not help these situations.

Another call reveals the ongoing saga of the woman with cerebral palsy and sundry health issues with a young daughter and a partner with drug problems and severe type-1 diabetes, and a roach infestation. The complaint from a landlord's lawyer about Bernal to the Constable Ethics Standards and Training Board involves a judge's rule of eviction "in the name of justice"—thereby circumventing Ducey's stay of eviction order, all because of the roaches. It is an ugly scenario, and Bernal is pissed. For one thing, their health issues qualify them under Ducey's COVID-19 order. "Until the judge comes to this woman's place and sees for himself," Bernal says, "I'm not touching these people." When Bernal assessed their place, he worked to get the exterminators, "it took all of 30 seconds."

Beyond the humane, Bernal asks himself aloud, what if this woman dies if we evict her? He knows his stance on such moral dilemma. He adds, "Anybody can do the job of kicking people out, this is about getting things done."

We drive over to Jacobs Park in Tucson, which was a grassy field until Bernal got his hands on it in the early aughts, as a lowly aide to Tucson Councilwoman Dunbar. This park represents him only trying to help, with no financial reward. He led the way in the park's total rebirth, which may not sound like much to a jaundiced ear, but it took a herculean effort, a few years and some desperate optimism on his part to put this three-tier project together. Tucson's first wheelchair accessible park features a modern swimming pool, a well-lighted Little League park which took Arizona Diamondbacks funding, myriad playground gear courtesy of the Catalina Rotary Club. "This is my baby," he tells me.

It is his baby. The park is a physical manifestation of his adult life. No wife or partner, no children, only his dogs Zeus and Nation, and the people he serves.

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