CASA GRANDE -- Mary Ann Lucero sat on a small chair, her dog Snowball at her feet. Lucero was at CGHelps to ask about shelter. And getting the ID she needed for services like food stamps.
She lost her ID when her purse was stolen. It’s an occupational hazard for the homeless.
She totes around a backpack now. That and Snowball are pretty much all she has. Snowball is ivory white, smallish with floppy ears. And friendly.
“She’s a very good girl,” Lucero said.
I met Lucero and Snowball last Tuesday at the CGHelps Resource Center. It’s housed in the old Peart Center at Peart Park, near the library and senior center. CGHelps opened in late April, with backing from the city of Casa Grande. The center is run by the Community Action Human Resources Agency. Everybody knows it as CAHRA.
A staffer from CAHRA is always on duty, during business hours anyway. CAHRA helps find housing for the homeless. And works with people threatened with eviction.
Shawna Storm was on hand a week ago Monday. She’s a CAHRA housing relocator.
“We have a lot of families that are living in cars and vehicles that got evicted,” Storm said. “They’re still working. They just don’t have the funds to get that deposit, first month’s rent, so they end up homeless.”
CAHRA helps pay move-in costs.
Lucero, 56, wasn’t tossed out by a landlord. She had been staying with relatives.
“They pushed me out, but I’m not going back,” she said.
She had met earlier with a representative from Social Security. Once a month, the Casa Grande office of Social Security staffs a cubicle at CGHelps.
Lucero collects Social Security disability. She suffers from severe depression.
“Me being homeless, I try not to think about it,” she said.
She had stopped receiving benefits, as she had no address. But CGHelps took care of that. The homeless can use the center’s mailing address. CGHelps keeps their mail in a lockbox for 30 days. The Social Security representative reinstated Lucero’s benefits, on the spot, a CGHelps case worker said.
CGHelps also gave her a referral to the Casa Grande office for the Arizona Department of Economic Security. They had Lucero’s ID on file. Lucero got a new one.
The center put her in touch with Pets in Need, which provided dog food. Snowball wouldn’t go hungry. Getting around was another issue. Casa Grande doesn’t have public transit, and Lucero doesn’t have a car. She walks everywhere. The resource center helped out with a new bicycle. Not brand new, but one in good condition.
It’s stored behind a cubicle. Lucero hasn’t ridden it yet.
“I need a lock,” Lucero said.
She had more matters to settle. Housing and the like. So she waited.
It’s a good place to wait. CGHelps is small, a space on a human scale. The polished wood floors add a bit of class. The receptionist, Vangie Villa, greets people with a smile as they enter. She keeps a calendar of different agencies and nonprofits that offer help. They show up on different days.
Today was for Social Security. Veterans help and behavioral health experts show up on other days. Sun Life Family Health Center offers medical screening and referrals for health care. The Lions Club offers vision screening. There’s more. CGHelps.com has a calendar of events.
And if somebody walks in a bit lost, Gloria Cardenas is there to offer guidance. She’s the CGHelps resource navigator, as well as a case worker.
But Lucero couldn’t wait any longer. She attends the daily 10:30 morning devotion at Fountains of Living Water Church on Second Street. It’s offered by Seeds of Hope and comes with coffee.
“I’ll be late,” she said. It was 10:25. I gave her and Snowball a lift, then returned to CGHelps.
Eddie Reyes, 57, was seated near the reception desk, with his walker.
“I’m trying to find some kind of shelter aid,” Reyes said. “I’ve had five surgeries in the last year and a half, and I have four more to go.”
He had a shopping list of operations. Multiple hip and knee replacements, as well as foot surgeries. He’s also had prostate cancer. Arizona’s version of Medicaid paid for treatments.
It didn’t keep a roof over his head.
“I’ve been working since I was 6 years old,” Reyes said. “It caught up to me.”
He worked 25 years at an Eloy diner, right up until June. He worked through pain until, as he put it, his hips cracked. He ended up in a hospital in Mesa. Without work, he couldn’t pay the rent. He lost his mobile home in Arizona City.
From the hospital, Reyes went to a rehab center. On his release, he ended up on the street. Or right next to it.
“They told me they’d put me in a shelter, and all they did was put me on a sidewalk,” he said.
They left him without a walker. Reyes called a friend who lives in Arizona City. His friend picked him up. They looked for shelter. A home would be nice. But no luck. He faces a life without a roof.
“For me, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
Maybe this year, he can quality for disability benefits. “I was denied last year.”
At CGHelps, he waited to talk to Sabrina Valenzuala from CAHRA. Her title is homeless prevention.
Joan Harp sat nearby. She turns 82 this month. She was breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. She wasn’t homeless, but her son was.
Mike Harp was at a small workbench-style table, just across the room. His girlfriend, Sylvia Stanley, was seated next to him. She was in a wheelchair. They were speaking to Valenzuela.
After their session, they joined Joan and told me their story.
Sylvia is 50. Multiple heart attacks confined her to a wheelchair.
Mike, 58, suffered a back injury in a desert motorcycle race. Vertebrae were crushed. He worked construction before that. Now he’s on disability, as is Sylvia.
They rented a home in Colonia del Sol. They’d always lived on the margin. Rent, food and utilities ate up their disability benefits.
Then things began to unravel. The landlord removed utility outlets. They weren’t replaced, as promised. The refrigerator no longer had power. The stove and oven didn’t work. Mike and Sylvia had bought food in bulk, to save money. It spoiled.
They cooked outside. Then the landlord told them he was selling the place. They were evicted.
The couple couch-surfed for a few months. They wore out their welcome and had to leave. They had nowhere to go.
“Three weeks in the streets. … We walk around, find shade,” Mike said. “This has never happened to me before.”
I asked where they slept. Park benches, Mike said. What about Sylvia? He’d help her onto a bench. Prop her legs up with something soft. Then Mike’s wallet was stolen. He had no ID.
He and Sylvia had hit bottom.
But every bottom has a bounce. And things were starting to look up. Mike could use the resource center as a mailing address. He could begin collecting his disability benefits, again. And Valenzuela gave him a list of possible rentals. CAHRA works with landlords and will pay the deposit and first month’s rent.
“They’re going to help me get reestablished,” Mike said. “They said, ‘start looking.’”
I got an update Thursday from Cardenas, the navigator. Mike and Sylvia could stay with his mother, Joan, until they found a place. And Lucero moved into a unit with another woman.
Somebody who likes good dogs, no doubt.
CGHelps can be reached at 520-483-0010 or online at CGHelps.com.