THE BAD NEWS BEARERS

EVICTIONS, SUBPOENAS, REPOS--CONSTABLES SPEND THEIR LIVES GIVING PEOPLE GRIEF. NOW THESE HARBINGERS OF HEARTBREAK JUST MIGHT BE LOOKING AT THEIR OWN PINK SLIPS.

And in situations like this one, which make up the majority of her job, Villegas' background in social work is more important than her official title as a law enforcement officer.

Villegas is a different kind of constable. She is a child of the projects and a single mother who still attends meetings of the housing agencies she worked for before being appointed and subsequently elected constable.

The only gun she has squirts water and sits on a shelf in her office below a colorful Mexican wall hanging that reminds visitors she is the first Chicana to serve in this office. Her badge is tucked inside a leather billfold, along with a list of phone numbers to social service agencies.

Villegas prefers the figurative back door rather than a frontal approach to situations she encounters, and today she applies a mixture of concern and control that moves the people along without asserting herself as the law.

"How is your move coming?" she asks the worried, tired-looking people on the other side of the door frame.

Inside, the apartment is still filled with furniture and few signs of leaving. The tenants tell Villegas they have five children and have been to the city's Human Resources Center looking for assistance. They have an appointment with a caseworker next Tuesday.

But that's four days from now. And they have nowhere else to go.
"I have to be honest with you and tell you that if they're not willing to work with you on this, you're going to have to leave," Villegas tells them. "Do you have someplace you can go?"

There is some discussion of a sister, but no real plan. There's the mention of a tax return, but it would never arrive in time.

Fate--in this instance, the calendar--steps in. Since Monday is a holiday, Villegas won't be back until Tuesday to change the locks on the apartment. In the meantime, she'll call the caseworker to find out what's going on, check if the city has funds available and do her best to find a place for this family before it is physically evicted.

By definition, none of this is her responsibility as a constable. But Villegas and a small faction of constables like her see it as their role.

To them, it's a matter of practicality.
If the family doesn't have a place to go, they're going to end up in an overpopulated shelter system shared among a number of different government and private agencies. If the landlord doesn't give them time to get their belongings out of the apartment, by law he will be required to store them for 60 days, which would be costly to everyone involved.

Once, when Villegas showed up at the manager's office during another eviction, the woman looked at her with disbelief.

"Are you the constable?" the manager asked. "I guess I was expecting some big guy with a gun--like a bouncer or something."

But the big guy with a gun is going out of style, at least in Phoenix. Villegas may be the constable of the future.

Maybe it's a way to hang on to some measure of small-town atmosphere in the big city, maybe it's because people aren't paying close attention, but the constables have hung on a lot longer than a lot of people ever thought they would.

Folks like E.T. Hernandez are part of the landscape in their communities. And for all their foibles, the voting public seems to have a great deal of patience with the constables.

They keep reelecting them.

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