Down and Out in Sedona:
Homeless Families Left Out in the Cold
They are working families with children.
They are former veterans who risked their lives.
They are not drunks, deadbeats and drug addicts.
They are people like you and me.
Real people. Professional people.
Hard-working people. Good people.
by Catherine J. Rourke
Published February, 2008
Updated September, 2010
Of all the preposterous assumptions made by humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms
made on the habits of the poor by
the well housed, well paid and well fed.
Herman Melville, novelist and poet (1819-1891)
Laying one's weary head to rest each night is a birthright that should never be denied to any human. Birds, fish and even plants take time to rest. Horses and cows lay down in the fields.
Glossy international travel magazines describe Sedona as "the most beautiful place in America" and an "international spiritual Mecca." Yet for those seeking their nightly birthright, it remains the meanest place in America. Where's the alleged spirituality?
Not only is there a blatant lack of shelter for homeless persons in a land where hot and cold temperatures run to extraordinary extremes -- from 117 in summer to 17 in winter -- but those left on the street with nowhere to turn are repeatedly arrested for sleeping out in the desert or a ditch behind Safeway.
They are not even permitted to pause on a park bench or rest at a bus stop. Told to move on, they are never offered any alternative place to find shade or warmth from the desert's radical elements.
The latest statistics on the homeless paint a disturbing truth that few of us really want to hear. Because they hit awfully close to home – and to the fact that any of us, due to an unanticipated medical problem, sudden job or housing loss or even an unexpected jail term – can easily wind up on the street.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (see the Web site at http://www.endhomelessness.org), there are 600,000 homeless families and 1.35 million homeless children in the U.S. And the diminishing availability of affordable housing accounts as a primary factor casting folks on the curb – literally.
The alliance claims that another 650,000 prisoners will be released onto the street this year, only adding to the homeless statistics. Unable to get jobs due to a prison record and/or lack of housing, most will have nowhere to go.
In Arizona, more than 8,000 people in Phoenix and 1,300 families in Flagstaff are homeless. How many more remain uncounted? Plenty, and the numbers are on the rise this year as the writing on the wall bodes ominous forecasts for homeowners in a deteriorating economy.
In Sedona and the Verde Valley, the number of homeless persons and families also remains anyone's guess. Still, as the "guess-timates" continue to rise, the area lacks any public shelter and communities continue to deny the homeless the right to camp on public land.
As a longtime local journalist, I have been writing repeated columns for seven years now about the failure of regional communities and municipalities to designate a public shelter.
Sedona, in particular, should be ashamed at its ongoing refusal to address its homeless population and its blatant failure to build or designate a shelter, especially in the colder winter months. Boasting itself as "a spritual Mecca for soul seekers around the globe," it only welcomes deep-pocketed tourists willing to pay for exorbitant hotel rates and overpriced Jeep tour rides. Or the chance to meditate with a shaman for $900 or spend $8,000 for a sweat-lodge weekend.
But then it turns its back on its homeless citizens, foreclosed and bankrupted by a corrupt banking and medical system, and tells men who once built the town to get lost.
Men like Todd Miller, a lifetime builder, master woodworker and carpenter extraordinaire who helped construct the Sedona Public Library over a decade ago. Just glance up at the spectacular wooden beams and flagstone structures in its cathedral-like interior. That's Miller's craftsmanship.
When the bottom fell out of the economy, so did Todd's lifetime career as a home builder. The days of building all those multimillion homes and 8000-square-foot Taj Mahals facing Cathedral Rock were over -- for him as well as the well-heeled.
Miller has been living on the streets of Cottonwood for some years now, unable to get back on his feet after losing his home, tools and vehicles. He has slept on sheets of ice and with spiders, snakes and scorpions on the bare desert floor. He has turned to substances in his circumstances and who among us would not do the same?
WHY IS THERE NO PUBLIC SHELTER IN SEDONA OR THE VERDE VALLEY FOR HOMELESS INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES?
Because it is an ECONOMIC issue based on GREED. Business as usual in America....
Affluent homeowners and city leaders shudder at proposals to turn vacant buildings and commerical warehouses into shelters, with "not in my neighborhood" attitudes. And forest officials flatly refuse to open the discourse on allowing homeless individuals a place to lay their weary heads for the night.
"It's out of our jurisdiction," they told the Observer, passing the baton and the blame on other agencies and bureaucracies.
The frightening truth is that homelessness can happen to any one of us.
That includes professionals and working people whose wages can no longer match the high cost of housing, from coast to coast -- not just in Sedona or the Verde Valley, but in major metropolises as well.
It doesn’t take much to lose your home. Just ask any of the working families seeking shelter at the Royal Inn in Flagstaff, where owners Kent and Lynette Bybee have launched a program offering them a chance to get back on their feet.
We’ll be highlighting their efforts in Part 2 of our coverage on the homeless in Arizona. In Part 1 below, we examine the current situation in Flagstaff and the sad plight of homeless veterans.
Visit the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness Web site at http://www.azceh.org for more information.
TO BE CONTINUED
Part 1 - Street Talk
Why Are There Homeless
Veterans in America?
"The Meanest Cities in America"
Does Arizona have a serious homeless crisis? Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at some general statistics.
According to the McKinney Act, 60 percent of homeless women are single parents. While 60 percent of Americans have a substance abuse problem, 40 percent of the homeless do NOT abuse drugs, medications or alcohol. They aren’t all drunks and addicts as we tend to think.
There more than 500,000 war veterans currently homeless in America, representing more than one-third of the total homeless population. Approximately 25 percent of the homeless people become mentally ill because of their situation, and one out of six homeless people attempt suicide.
The Old Testament admonishes us to “house the homeless.” (Isaiah 58:6). What are we doing about that right here in Arizona? It’s not quite what Isaiah had in mind.
A tale of two cities
In its 2006 annual report “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of the Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” the National Coalition for the Homeless named two Arizona cities among the “Top 20 Meanest Cities in America” for homeless people.
Flagstaff came in at No. 10 and Phoenix at No. 17. Shame on Arizona and shame on us.
According to the report, both of the above cities failed to make available, or only minimally provided, social services and affordable housing. Furthermore, both cities enacted the actual outlawing of the very status of homelessness by criminalizing activities such as sleeping in cars on city streets.
In essence, city leaders have made it illegal to be homeless in Flagstaff and Phoenix Arizona. And they have provided nothing in the way of resources or social services to help needy homeless people.
The Flagstaff City Council made camping or sleeping in one's car within city limits illegal in 2005, with a fine of $2,500 and/or six months in jail for violators. That leaves 1,300 families with nowhere to turn.
Conversely, the city of Flagstaff has not provided a homeless shelter, thwarted by other financial priorities and citizens who scream loudly that they don’t want one near their homes and/or businesses. Arizona cities should be looking at ways to empower and not enable our homeless population, making criminals out of destitute working poor families.
Anywhere else but here
A friend of mine recently noticed a homeless man walking on the side of the road in Sedona who was approached by a policeman in his patrol car. The next day my friend saw the very same man on the side of the road in Flagstaff. We could only speculate that perhaps the Sedona policeman gave him a ride to Flagstaff.
A NIMBY (not in my back yard) response, perhaps? Hmmmmmm. Certainly Sedona doesn’t want the homeless to tarnish its rosy image for tourists and “Main Street” small-town appeal.
The NIMBY mentality has to go. The homeless ARE in our back yard and ignoring them won’t make them go away. We cannot, as a state and as a society, continue to drive our homeless out of town in the hopes that they become another city’s problem.
The next homeless person could be you.
A haven for the homeless
Two private citizens in Flagstaff have purchased the Royal Inn on Route 66. While they could have run a typical motel, instead they turned the Royal Inn into a place where the homeless could come and receive a room, food, job counseling, psychiatric care, housing counseling, substance abuse treatment and re-entry into the mainstream culture.
They also provide much needed services, such as a place to receive their mail and get telephone calls from prospective employers and family members while enjoying a warm, inviting environment designed to help them become contributing members of society.
At the Royal Inn, I met children and parents who were temporarily residing there. Last Christmas, Lynette stated that she was housing 50 people while outside the temperatures dropped to a minus-6 degrees one day. Where would they have found the necessary warmth to stay alive?
Many of the families are people who came to Arizona with $5,000 to find a place to live and obtain employment, only to discover it wasn’t enough for the extremely high cost of living and housing when facing such a low-wage base.
Perhaps the inherent problem in America isn't housing costs but low wages that have remainded stagnant, along with frozen minimum wages, for decades.
We cannot ignore the fact that it is possible that a young mother or child might be the next to freeze-to-death statistic during a long, bitter cold night in Flagstaff while waiting for someone to give them shelter. All demographics show that homelessness is on the rise versus decline in Flagstaff and Phoenix.
If our city leaders and governments won’t or can’t come to the plate with solutions, private businesses (like the Bybee's) and private citizens must take on the challenge.
We can do so much better than we are currently doing. We can attend City Council meetings and speak on behalf of the need for homeless shelters. We can send e-mail and letters to city, state and national representatives from Arizona. We can raise funding and ask private business to partner with us to be a part of the solution to the problem. Above all, we can refuse to embrace the NIMBY state of mind.
Last Christmas a woman named Emma took a handful of homeless children from the Royal Inn to a movie on her meager pizza-parlor salary. She asked the children what they wanted “Santa” to bring. One little boy wanted a bike. Another little girl wanted a Barbie, and so it went.
But one little girl sat silently in the back seat until Emma prompted her to answer. Her reply: “I just want my very own house.”
The happy news is that four months later she and her single father HAD their very own apartment, with him obtaining a job and her enrolled in school – thanks to the Bybees, not our city leaders.
Everyone deserves a second chance
Not all homeless people are drunks and drug addicts. Plus, consider the fact that drunks and drug addicts need a chance at life just as much as you and me. Perhaps they are addicted to substances to ameliorate their harsh reality. How many of us would fall apart in just a few hours of homelessness and turn to alcohol on a cold night?
Who are we to judge people with addictions when our society offers few viable healing resources? Addiction remains vastly misunderstood, along with mental illness, and expert psychologists and therapists are still scrambling for answers.
Let's get real.
Many homeless people are moms and kids and dads. Their lives and futures mean something. Flagstaff alone has 550 homeless children. There is no such thing as a throwaway child. We should care about what those children have the potential to become and contribute to society as future workers, leaders, teachers -- and our future cargivers.
There should be a law against making it illegal to be homeless. Period. Beggars on the streets of Bangladesh have more rights than a homeless person in the desert canyons of Sedona.
For now, let’s all agree that we will do something, no matter how small, to ensure a safe, warm, secure, vibrant and productive future for those less fortunate than ourselves. Give a buck, a blanket, a smile, a kind word, a helping hand, a warm meal.
Kent and Lynette are unsung heroes in my book. If you would like to help them in their endeavors, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homeless in Arizona, Part 2
Room at the Inn with
the Royal Treatment
by Catherine J. Rourke
"Getting their digs on Route 66"
Flagstaff's homeless families receive
a "Royal" welcome
Flagstaff's homeless find a regal welcome at the Royal Inn as one couple opens their motel doors and hearts for the city's have-nots. Join us as we travel to Flagstaff to meet Kent and Lynette Bybee, owners of the Royal Inn, and the people and families they are rescuing off the streets of one of the "Top 20 Meanest Cities in America."
But don't wait for our story to find out how to help the homeless. Now you can send contributions to INN TRANSITIONS, a new nonprofit support service that provides transitional housing for working poor families on the street.
Send donations payable to Inn Transitions, c/o The Royal Inn, 2140 E. Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, or e-mail email@example.com.
Read the Observer's award-winning "Invisible Sedona"
social justice columns
Forgotten folks and neglected issues
swept under the rug
Click here to read Rourke's "Invisible Sedona" series, winner of a 2006 "Community Journalist of the Year" award from the Arizona Press Club.
With a focus on the city's socioeconomic issues such as subminimum-wage jobs and the lack of affordable housing and proper medical care, Rourke reveals the flip side of "the most beautiful place in America" [USA Today, 2003] -- the one most Sedona tourists never get to see -- the one that often falls into the cracks of its red rocks.
Rourke rides with the city's trash collectors, burns toast with its breakfast waitresses, visits the working poor in trailer parks, flushes toilets with janitors -- and of course, sits on corners with homeless persons -- to tell their tales and their side of life in Sedona.
Click here to read Rourke's "Truth in Medicine" column series...
"Health Sentinel" reporter Catherine Rourke puts the medical stethoscope under the media microscope
Why Are There Homeless Veterans in America?
In 2006, approximately 196,000 veterans were homeless on any given night, up from an estimated 194,000 in 2005.
Estimates of the total number of homeless veterans tally about half a million; this figure does not include their spouses and children, who may also be homeless or severely impoverished. An additional 500,000 veterans pay more than 50 percent of their income to cover rent.
In the United States, veterans comprise 26 percent of the homeless population, while they represent only 11 percent of the adult civilian population.
In Tennessee alone, there were approximately 2,800 veterans homeless on any given night in 2006.
Housing costs to blame
According to Operation Stand Down Nashville, while factors such as lack of income, physical health, physical disability, mental health, trauma and substance abuse all contribute to veteran homelessness, veterans are primarily homeless due to the lack of affordable housing.
Homeless veterans include a significantly growing number from current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder and severe sleep deprivation.
Often, those who have never suffered from PTSD and the inability to sleep are unaware of how big of a toll such a problem has on preventing these veterans from being able to hold down a steady job and function well on a regular basis.
Many veterans have lost civilian jobs due to extended tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and, upon returning home, find it very difficult to support themselves and their families. Many veterans who are not currently homeless are in danger of becoming so.
Regardless of religious, political or other persuasions, there is no excuse for the citizens of the United States to allow even one veteran, or one veteran's spouse or child, to be homeless.
Or any human being, for that matter.
Americans who sit idly by and make no attempt to address and alleviate the problems of poverty and the plight of homeless veterans, in particular, demonstrate a severe lack of personal morality, responsibility and dignity.
Do Americans who ignore the plight of homeless veterans really support the troops? Why are there homeless veterans in America to begin with?
Let me know what you think.
Richard Aberdeen, a Nashville writer and musician, created The Aberdeen Foundation, a nonprofit human rights organization that helps the sick and poor. He is also the founder of Freedom Tracks Records, an independent label dedicated to producing music of social and political conscience. The former Prescott resident has authored three books, with a work-in-progress titled Fixing America in 500 Words or Less.
Visit http://www.AberdeenFoundation.org and http://www.freedomtracks.com/500/title.html for more information.
National Alliance to End Homeless: http://www.naeh.org
Operation Stand Down Nashville: http://www.osdnashville.org
Read this fascinating report about Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly's callous remarks on homeless vets at the above link. It notes that, as former military trained for survival, these men have learned to adapt to homelessness as a means of survival.
The article also mentions U.S. Vets in Inglewood, Calif., the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless and at-risk veterans by providing temporary housing, counseling and employment assistance.
Visit www.USVetsinc.org for more information.