He Is Risen; They Are Not

Easter Sunday morning. Slowly, you walk into the alley south of Madison Street. It's still partially dark. It's 6:35 a.m.

A steady rain falls. It's been raining all night.
On the radio, they talk of flash flood warnings. The fat copies of the Sunday Republic make a last-ditch effort to sell ValTrans. There'll be no celebration of emergence from the tomb here. No hunt for Easter eggs; no freshly cut flowers exchanged.

There is nothing to celebrate here. These people are buried. Homeless men and women form a tight, jealous line against the brick wall of what many years ago was once the county jail. Their greatest fear is that someone will jump into line ahead of them.

The all-night rain has temporarily stolen their last shred of dignity. Some wear blankets over their heads and shoulders. They look like figures in those old black- and-white photos from concentration camps.

Some tremble openly. Their clothes are sodden. Their hair hangs down over their foreheads in wet, shining rings. They push as close to the brick wall as possible to avoid the still-falling rain.

None of these people care about the radio's flash flood warnings. None have read the Sunday-morning paper.

Most spent the night trying to sleep in three-foot-high green tents in a muddy field directly behind the shelter. They are worried about something more immediate to them than floods or light rail transportation.

They are homeless and they must eat.
Breakfast will be served soon in the day room of the Central Arizona Shelter.

Right now, volunteers from St. Mary's food bank unload a big truck. Everyone will be fed.

"Gimme them back, you son of a bitch," a voice screeches.
"Cantcha take a joke?" comes the answer, just as loud and every bit as aggressive.

The white man with the screeching voice and the straw-colored beard lunges at the black man with the heavily bandaged right hand. The man with the straw-colored beard wears no shoes as he moves about the alley filled with deep puddles of water. He is wearing what appears to be two pairs of heavy socks on his very long feet.

"My glasses," he shouts, almost incoherently. He lunges again toward the black man.

The black man dances back down the alley, passing along the line of men and women in the food line.

No one on the line smiles. They stare blankly at the combatants. If trouble comes, no one will take sides.

"You cain't even run, honky. Cain't even run. Why don't you go find your motherfucking shoes first?"

"Gonna get you," the man with the straw beard says. His rage and frustration are strangling him.

A man with a black tee shirt with a Coca-Cola emblem walks down the breakfast line. He stares directly into everyone's face. He is careful not to miss anyone.

"Who got my coat?" he asks. His tone is calm. There is a touch of inquisitiveness. No threat. He is like a wise and knowing detective from a television series.

"I'm looking for the somebody who took my coat. I'll find you before this day's over, too."

I watch Coca-Cola Tee Shirt as he proceeds down the breakfast line. His questions draw two reactions. Some avert their eyes, pretending not to hear. Others shake their heads from side to side in silence.

But nobody speaks. It's as though everyone on the line is terrified of everyone else.

On the line are men with scraggly beards and one-size-fits-all baseball caps. There are women carrying their clothes in plastic shopping bags.

And there are surprises. There's a well-dressed man standing under an open umbrella. He wears a cap, a fine sport coat and freshly pressed slacks. He could be on his way to the Ritz-Carlton.

There's a girl in her twenties with long blonde hair. Right behind her is a menacing-looking tall man with a black fedora pulled down low over his eyes, which are covered by the darkest sunglasses I've ever seen north of Sonora. There's also a Mexican boy of possibly fourteen, shivering in a pair of jogging shorts and a short-sleeved polo shirt.

There are Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, whites, cripples and a few men and women who are perhaps mentally deranged but no longer eligible for state hospital care. There are big women and small men and the reverse as well. Some are young. Some are old. Life has dealt them all a severe pounding. For some, it's their ego. For others it's worse. Some are alcoholics, and some are what we now call substance abusers. It's hard to bet that any will make it back. Still, the odds on this are the same as if they lived in Paradise Valley.

But there's a difference on this line. Here, it's impossible to tell whether any of them had a chance to start with.

I walk inside the shelter.
Volunteers bustle about, preparing breakfast.
I approach a man in a plaid shirt. He wears a plastic identification tag. The tag has given him a sense of authority.

"Who's running this place?" I ask.
He looks at me suspiciously. But he relents quickly. Clearly, he doesn't have that much self-confidence after all.

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