CASA GRANDE -- Christina Marn and her friends help each other out on hot summer days. They head for a convenience store. Whoever has food stamps will buy a big bottle of water. And maybe some ice.
“We pass water to each other,” Marn said. “Pour water on ourselves, and when the sprinklers turn on, sit under a shade tree.”
What they don’t share is a roof. Marn and her friends are homeless.
I spoke to her last week in a dining room run by Seeds of Hope, a faith-based charity. Free hot lunches are served daily. The dining room has a new floor. The walls have new paint.
It’s housed in the Fountains of Living Water Church on Second Street. Diners are expected to help with cleanup and other chores.
Like Marn, who’s 50, many of them are homeless.
I have to state the obvious here. Now is not a good time to be homeless. Not July in Casa Grande. The day I spoke to Marn the high was 109. The day before it was 114.
A bit of shade under a tree is much appreciated.
Peart Park offers that, plenty of shade and grass. It’s a 10-minute walk from the church. People there look out for each other, Marn said. If someone falls asleep in the sun, they’ll get a wake-up call and be led to a spot under a tree. Shade.
I asked her about other places she could go to cool off.
“The only place I can think of is the skate park,” she said. “They have like a water thing for kids.”
The water thing is at Carr McNatt Park, also home to the skate park. Kids can splash around in cool geysers of water.
“I’m pretty sure adults get wet, too,” Marn said.
Parents with their kids most likely.
Marn can only watch and perhaps dream of resetting the clock. Become a kid again and run freely through the cool spray.
“That’s a good idea right there,” she said.
Childhood, of course, is no longer an option.
Before the pandemic, Marn had other places she could go. Public spaces where people of all walks were welcome. A favorite was the Casa Grande Main Library, adjacent to Peart Park. It offered a cool place to sit. It offered water.
It was listed as a cooling and hydration station in what was known as the street sheet. The one-page foldout was a resource guide for the homeless. It was in wide circulation last summer.
This summer, not so much. Cooling stations like the library have largely shut down anyway. The coronavirus can’t spread if people aren’t around to spread it. The library closed its doors in mid-March, part of a statewide lockdown. It opened the lobby in May.
Then, as COVID cases spiked in Arizona, it closed again.
Before the lockdown, everybody was welcome, Library Manager Amber Kent said.
“People could come in as long as they needed.”
Now books are checked out curbside. And the doors aren’t completely shut. People can go in to use the computers. Six have been set up, 6 feet apart. Barriers separate the stations. They’re cleaned after each use.
“A lot of people need those computers. They’re looking for jobs or filing for unemployment benefits,” Kent said.
For now, library cards aren’t required. People can just cool down while surfing the web.
I spoke to Princelee as he finished lunch. He sat one table over from Marn. He didn’t want his last name used. He planned to head to the library later, use the computer.
“They’ll let you in there for an hour,” Princelee said. “But you have to be very, very quiet.”
It is, after all, a library.
I asked Princelee how long he’d been homeless.
“To be honest, this is my 15th time, since 19. I’m 25. My dad’s in prison for life. My mom, she hasn’t really been there.”
He doesn’t handle it alone, he said.
“If I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ, I would not be able to get through it,” he said.
He spoke philosophically about Jesus as the way.
Seated next to him, Carl Benner said: “That’s pretty deep, man.”
Benner, 50, gets by with a higher power himself.
“When I want to be cooled off, I ask God for a nice cool breeze. Usually, he’ll give it.”
He didn’t get it Sunday before last. He was walking in the 114-degree heat.
“I felt like I was going to pass out, until I made it to the park, and then I sat down for a while.”
Pre-COVID, he could have grabbed a cold bottle of water at the library. Not at the moment. The library stopped taking donations, Kent said. There’s simply no place to store the water.
The nearby CGHelps Resource Center was another cooling and hydration station. It sits on the northeast corner of Peart Park. It’s a one-stop shop for the homeless and people needing help with housing. It’s mostly shuttered now. Pandemic fallout.
The doors are open for a few hours Monday and Wednesday. The homeless can pick up their mail then, in care of CGHelps. One person staffs the mailroom. She hands out water as well.
The Community Action Human Resources Agency manages CGHelps. Mary Lou Rosales is CAHRA’s executive director.
CAHRA is looking into places that can offer cooling and hydration. They won’t be left high and dry, Rosales said.
“We have water that we’ll share with anybody who has a hydration station,” she said.
Some faith-based centers already offer food and water.
The library and CGHelps want to resume business as usual. That includes offering cool respite to people who could use a bit of comfort. How soon depends on getting the virus under control. No one has the answer.
Benner rose from the dining table. He shouldered his backpack and braced for another scorching afternoon. I asked if he planned to visit the library.
“I don’t know how to use a computer,” he said.
Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at firstname.lastname@example.org.