By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Wolfman had heard about the homeless shelters in Phoenix from other transients and had a pretty fair notion of his destination. He checked into the Central Arizona Shelter Service building (CASS) his first night in town and stayed there as long as he could.
At 6 a.m., he'd be turned out of CASS, and Wolfman said he'd make his way to the bus station downtown where he panhandled, telling marks he needed fare to make it to job interviews.
"By the time the liquor stores opened, I'd have $5 or $6 and I could buy some malt liquor or M.D. [Mad Dog orange jubilee--a fortified wine]. I'd have my drink and then keep my appointments."
Because he was staying at CASS, Wolfman was obligated to demonstrate that he was seeking employment or help. These interviews were his "appointments."
Wolfman played the game and continued to spiral downward.
"I'd get in trouble when I started drinking and decided to try on [fight] those younger guys. When you're in the shelter, it's not too dangerous. On the streets, well . . . . If you showed a little affluence around people, it would get you in trouble. I bought this guy three six-packs and a fifth of vodka. I bought myself three six-packs and a fifth as well. I go over to take a B.M. and slip off my pants. The guy runs off with my pants. This guy was 22 and just got out of state prison in California where he ran and worked out all the time. I probably couldn't have handled him even if I could have caught him which I couldn't. I got my pants back, but he got me for $86."
Wolfman's alcoholism only aggravated his mental illness. Booze diluted his medication to the point that his depression became overwhelming. Afraid of being trapped, he stopped sleeping indoors and became chronically withdrawn.
Wolfman got lucky when one of his "appointments" turned out to be with J.R. Murphy.
A former state legislator from Delaware who lost everything and became homeless himself, Murphy got back on his feet and was employed by Phoenix South Community Mental Health Center, one of the transient services located near the CASS shelter.
With a marginal budget, Phoenix South is dedicated to reaching the mentally ill too disturbed to seek help for themselves. The agency employs four caseworkers who drive the streets of Phoenix looking for the individuals the rest of us cross the street to avoid.
"I was in bad shape when I met J.R.," said Wolfman. "Three months in a row, doing nothing but be on the bum. I told J.R. I was worn out. He closed the door and I just broke down crying.
"I don't forget when I've been on my ass. If you have some drive, you can do a little better than sleeping in the gutter."
Today, Wolfman's illness is treated with lithium. It allows him to maintain an even keel instead of swinging wildly from euphoria to depression. No longer on the streets, Wolfman lives on the near west side in a group home for the mentally ill. His condition allows him to draw $386 a month from the state in a disability check, of which $330 goes for his monthly room and board. Wolfman's plans include buying a set of painter's whites, a few brushes and rollers and setting himself up as a free-lance house painter.
But even with his lithium, his counseling from the psychiatric staff of Phoenix South, his disability check, Wolfman is not ever likely to get a job with IBM.
Not very long ago, Wolfman made a big score and then squandered his small fortune over a long weekend fixing Mexican brown heroin in a shooting gallery not far from his group home.
"If I get real money, I'm going to score heroin," admits Wolfman.
It is this sort of admission that drives people like Jessie and Clara Gillespie around the bend. Every day they see the drunks, the crazies, the addicts, the homeless by the hundreds hanging around their home. The thought that the state is giving money to insane people who throw it away on alcohol or dope nearly drives the Gillespies crazy.
"Fact: fifty states, and Arizona leads all fifty in handing out food stamps," said an outraged Jessie Gillespie. "Why do we do it?"
Despite Gillespie's hyperbole, the real fact is economics. Because of his mental illness, Wolfman can only take care of himself in short bursts. It costs Arizona $386 a month to keep Wolfman off the streets and tranquil with the help of Phoenix South. Given his head, Wolfman would end up a ward of the state in a mental institution where the tab, conservatively estimated, would run $3,100 a month.
"For the first time in a long time, I don't have to worry about where I'll sleep at night. I can't tell you how much pressure that takes off," said Wolfman. "My mind has settled down. I'm even reading the Bible twice a day."
To be continued
Four caseworkers drive the streets of Phoenix looking for the individuals the rest of us cross the street to avoid.