HOMELESS ON THE RANGE
An overloaded camper stumbled off Interstate 40. Furniture and other items were piled inside and on top, along with five kids and their parents and their dogs and grandma and gramps besides.
The vehicle coughed its way onto historic Route 66 in Kingman after a journey that had begun in east Texas. The odds of the truck surviving the desert trek to Los Angeles seemed slim.
The family was directed to Father Lawrence Falance, a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic priest whose church is known to help needy travelers.
The sight on the doorstep bewildered Falance and his wife, Fawnda, despite their experience with these things. "All they needed was Granny's chair up there," Fawnda Falance says, remembering the Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies fame.
Falance put them up for the night in the rectory and chapel of St.Theresa's, the pintsize church he oversees in a residential area of central Kingman, a block from his home.
Because Kingman, a booming area of 16,800, has no place for the homeless, Falance's church sanctuary is well-known. When the domestic violence shelter is full, workers send him the overflow. When people released from jail have nowhere to go, someone's already given them Falance's phone number. When cops find people sleeping in cars or in alleyways, they point the way to St. Theresa's.
Far and away the bulk of those who come to Falance are desperate sojourners like the family in the camper. In northwest Arizona, all roads lead to Kingman--Highway 68, Interstate 40, U.S. 93 and historic Route66. It is 30 miles east to Bullhead City and Laughlin, Nevada, and another 35 miles southwest to Needles, California. The area is home to about 90,000 people, and yet there is not one place officially designed to offer shelter to those without homes.
Which makes Falance a Samaritan or a renegade, depending on whom you ask. For several years, the diminutive former deputy sheriff has been trying to find a permanent space for Prodigal House, a shelter that would offer better accommodations than the cots and lumpy mattresses of St. Theresa's.
But, like those in many places in rural America frightened by visions of stereotypical skid-row bums and petty thieves, Kingman's city fathers have not dealt easily with the idea of homelessness in their front yard.
Kingman Police Chief Carroll Brown once wrote a memo to his staff saying that most homeless people "choose that lifestyle." City officials recently passed a no-camping ordinance pushed by downtown merchants troubled by riffraff wandering the streets and petty crimes they attribute to it.
Most area residents seem to agree with Penny Bonner of the Bullhead City/Laughlin-area United Way, who says: "Father Falance is the closest thing to a shelter we have. He truly does God's work. He epitomizes for me what someone in the church should be."
For Kingman and Mohave County officials, he apparently epitomizes a scofflaw. Falance's operation has been booted out of or denied several sites for various reasons. As a man with a mission, he places the blame at the feet of Kingman's elite and the local officials who keep upsetting his plans with their codes and ordinances.
Looming on the horizon are major cuts in welfare programs--cuts that congressional leaders expect churches and privately funded charities to replace. And, as more people with scant resources hit the highways looking for better prospects, communities like Kingman are reporting greater numbers of "off the interstate" homeless.
And, like Kingman, many places are not inclined to welcome them.
Falance's travails are not unprecedented. Since the Dust Bowl, when legions of Okies crept along Route 66 toward the California promised land, Kingman has had a history of denying travelers room at the inn. More recently, in 1979, a minister tried to open a shelter for marooned travelers. The city council shut down the program in a battle over zoning regulations.
Sixteen years later, Kingman still has no homeless shelter. This time around, what it does have is Father Lawrence Falance.
The Republican Contract With America--while slashing government-assistance programs and delegating more authority to local governments--calls for churches and the private sector to lead the fight against social ills such as homelessness.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that every church and synagogue across the land take in one homeless person for six months. "I believe in a social safety net," Gingrich says. "But I think it's better done by churches and by synagogues and by volunteers."
Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless says that's unrealistic. "What [Gingrich] doesn't realize is that the majority of work being done is by the private sector," he says. "Churches are already involved. There is no way that the private charity system is going to be able to respond to any increasing needs. That's simply not going to happen."
Nationwide, conservative estimates place the number of homeless at about one million, a figure that does not wholly include rising numbers of rural homeless, who often elude definition. And more people are living closer to the edge. In 1992, the U.S. Census Bureau listed almost 37 million Americans as poor, or 14.5percent of the population. Three years earlier, the figure was 12.8percent.
And the Falances aren't the only homeless advocates who are unpopular with chamber of commerce types and smalltown bureaucrats.
"We've had a struggle," says Ruth Jones of the Alle-Kiski Homeless Project in a rural valley northeast of Pittsburgh. Like Falance, the group is on its third attempt to open a shelter in the area.
"We had a building donated by a man from a local church," she says. "We went to the zoning board hearing, and the public was just horrible. People were saying they didn't want homeless people there because they were drug addicts, alcoholics and child molesters, and they were afraid for their children. They said, 'We don't want you to bring those people in from Pittsburgh.' Without saying it, it was very much racial. They meant the blacks from Pittsburgh."
Stoops says it's a phenomenon he sees often--communities and police chiefs and sheriffs who are certain that if a shelter is opened, every homeless person in America will zero in on their world.
"That's the fear of so many people," Stoops says, "and it has racist and classist undertones. It's like Field of Dreams, but this is the field of nightmares: If you build it, they will come. But 'they' are the poor. They're blacks and Hispanics. In Appalachia, people are afraid they're going to get 'them' if they build services. In the West Virginia/Kentucky area, people are afraid to open a shelter because there's enough local poor already, and they're afraid people will come from other parts of the country."
Stoops attended the public meeting at which Jones' Alle-Kiski Homeless Project made its pitch for a 14-bed shelter. He intended to present real faces of nationwide homelessness, to abolish common stereotypes.
"When we left that meeting," Jones says, "Mike looked at me and said, 'Ruth, I've never seen so much hate in one room.' People were booing while the slides were being shown. They were about how homelessness affects everybody, old people, young people--basically slides of homeless people throughout the country.
"He gave statistics. We tried to let them know how we'd operate the shelter. ... The hate was amazing. At one point, I just stopped explaining any more because it was falling on deaf ears. I had some formerly homeless people who'd gotten their lives back together, who were going to talk about their experience, but the crowd was so hostile that I didn't put them through that."
Jones' battle has shifted to another community, where her foes are city officials and zoning regulations that had gone unenforced--until the shelter came to town.
The field of nightmares is playing in Cheyenne, Wyoming, too, where 2,500 traveling homeless a year pass through on interstates 25 and 90. "When we first opened [the shelter], they hadn't noticed [the homeless]," says Virginia Sellner of Cheyenne's Day Center for the Homeless. "Then they noticed them, and they said it was our fault. And when we opened the day center, they really didn't want that, either. It just pointed out a few more things they didn't want to see. They try to ignore it."
In Eureka, California, advocate Liz Larson says the not-in-my-backyard syndrome flourishes whenever talk of a permanent shelter is brought up. "Even in the industrial areas, we get, 'Oh, we don't want it there because we might develop there.' It's the resistance. People feel if we have a homeless shelter that people will come from miles away."
"Homelessness is like an embarrassment in these communities," says Jones of the Alle-Kiski Homeless Project. "People would rather not talk about it, rather not know that it's here. I've tried to do things on awareness, that it is a problem, and then we get comments like, 'We'll take care of our own.'"
But places along the interstates often have more than their own. No one knows for sure the number of travelers who are in fact homeless or clinging to the edge, because it is constantly in flux.
Until this year, churches in Winslow had been spending $5,000 a year to service an average of 600 people coming through town. Yuma, meanwhile, has that many homeless people at any one time. About half are from Yuma, says Carol Elg of the city's Crossroads Mission, which operates on $50,000 a year in grants and federal money. But the rest are people just traveling through. The nearest shelter is in ElCentro, 50 miles away.
"Yuma just doesn't have the job market," Elg says. "I ask them, 'Why did you pick Yuma?' And they say, 'Well, I don't know.' Some say they were promised a job and it didn't pan out; some say they thought they had family here."
There's not a place in this country that isn't lacking affordable housing and living-wage jobs, says Sellner of Cheyenne's Day Center for the Homeless. "We need to quit thinking of them. Anybody in this country could end up homeless."
"What's true in America today," says Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless, "is that no community, no city, no town, no Indian reservation is immune from homelessness. Homeless people are everywhere.
"And with the cuts in federal social safety-net programs, I predict homelessness is going to quadruple in this country by the end of the decade. Where are these people going to go? This period is now similar to other periods, like the Reagan '80s, when they cut the number of beds in institutionalized hospitals and they said there would always be a safety net. And they lied to us. And now they're lying to us again."
If you had to pick a place where the Contract With America might begin to assert itself, you'd think it would be somewhere like Kingman.
The Timothy McVeighs and Michael Fortiers notwithstanding, the region is a bastion of stodgy Republicanism and Mayberry values and kids who win national Soapbox Derby championships. The area Yellow Pages features four listings under the Republican party heading. No listings exist for Democrats at all.
"Everybody's screaming that charities and churches should take care of these people," says Fawnda Falance. "Well, we're trying."
The Falances were sheltering close to 2,000 people a year, 70 percent of them "off the interstate," before the City of Kingman and the Mohave County Health Department slapped them with cease-and-desist orders in September. Too many people, they charged, in improper conditions that Lawrence Falance says will be costly to correct. For example, county health rules require three-compartment sinks in public serving areas; the rectory at St. Theresa's was built with the facilities of a single-family house.
City and county officials say they're just enforcing the law.
But the crackdown on St. Theresa's came as Falance secured what at last seemed to be the ideal shelter facility--an abandoned motel that needs some work--and it put him in the position of either risking arrest or ignoring what he sees as his calling.
"They are telling us what we can and cannot do with our ministry," Father Falance groans at his kitchen table, the nerve center of a home breathing with visitors, friends and helpers. They include Falance's nephew Frank Giamporcaro, who aids with church operations, including the federally subsidized Commodities Supplemental Food Program ("Food Plus") that St.Theresa's has handled for four years.
Falance is 69, a five-foot-three Italian American with a bulbous nose, a self-deprecating manner and the coarse face of an aging boxing trainer. His eyes flare like fiery marbles wedged in his head. He wears a plain gray tee shirt. Around his neck hangs the distinctive cross of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which allows priests to marry. The church assigned him to Kingman 13 years ago. Before priesthood were stints in New Mexico law enforcement.
He has had several heart attacks and bypass operations, and is popular enough that the local paper once published a picture of him being shuttled out of surgery.
Fawnda, his freckled, braided and much younger wife, nukes a few burgers and dishes one up for Falance. The coffee maker gurgles a constant supply of hot refills.
"They said to cease and desist or they will throw me in jail," Falance says. "I do not like jail. I'm a chaplain out there, and I do not like the food."
There is no shortage of people seeking shelter at St.Theresa's, says Falance's nephew Giamporcaro, a Philadelphia transplant with the ardent manner of a Berkeley activist: "They're the working poor. They have fallen that notch. And when they had the earthquake in California, we got swamped. We had people sleeping on pews.
"So let's say those people didn't put away for a rainy day. What are we going to do, punish their children? People here have contempt for outsiders. That's their attitude. But they'll hide behind ordinances."
The Falances are Republicans, too. So is Giamporcaro. But Father Falance is threatening to change parties, and he says he and his nephew set worried wheels turning in local heads when they went down and picked up a stack of voter registration forms the other day.
The phone rings. "St. Theresa's," Fawnda answers. The voice on the other end is meek, uncomfortable in its role as bearer ofbad tidings. The caller says Mohave County is yanking the Food Plus program from the church. The program, which provides food boxes for the elderly, will betransferred to a local senior center within days.
Father Falance demands a reason. The whole thing has gone too far. "This is a persecution," he says.
Fawnda says the woman on the phone is crying now. The move was prompted by her boss, county health director Jerry Street, because of the cease-and-desist order against the church for violating health and zoning laws. Can't dole out food boxes if you ain't got those triple sinks.
Father Falance gets on the phone and asks for Street himself, but is told he is out of town. "For four years," he tells the caller, "we carried boxes. Did a wonderful job. And when the heat's on, this guy runs under the table. This is a fine way to thank us. Tell him I said to get some guts."
He slams down the receiver. He walks into the living room, throwing his chair aside in disgust. All those hours of work invested, 400 people a week, and now the county's going to take it away.
"It's like they're thinking, 'We don't care who this hurts,'" Giamporcaro rants. "This is a program being run properly--and they can't stand that. All because you let homeless kids sleep in your church."
Falance comes back in a huff. "It's wreckin' my church. It's pullin' the walls apart." He tries to keep his humor. "I don't need this. I do need a Valium. Got any?"
Dean Dilbeck's family moved from Kingman to Barstow, California, when he was a year old, and that's where he grew up and met Kathy, his wife. He was in construction; she was a cashier at a convenience store. Now he's 27 and she's 22, but being homeless has added a few years to their appearance.
They sit in mismatched chairs under a tree at St. Theresa's in Kingman, by a shed loaded with mattresses and a clothesline drying blankets. The couple's children, Deiane, 3, and Dean Jr., 1, play with toys in the dirt as evening sets in.
This is their second try in Kingman; the first was two years ago. They left when a woman visiting the shelter told Dean about a seasonal job opening in Tennessee. The Dilbecks rode a bus there and Dean worked at a nursing home until he wasn't needed anymore. Then they went back to Barstow.
They were doing okay, even had a place of their own, and then he got laid off from his job as a beer-truck driver. They lost the house with the nice yard, and next thing they were on welfare, and then Dean said, screw that. Their hometown no longer held hope for them.
They joined a migration of Californians heading for places like Laughlin and Vegas hoping to land casino work, or for the Kingman area, where the Scott Paper Company has opened a new plant, an industrial park near the airport is thriving and a new steel-recycling plant is nearing completion.
The Kingman the Dilbecks returned to has changed. The city earned unwanted attention with last spring's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. But the once-sleepy, vastly white cow town also grew 21 percent between 1990 and 1994. (Nearby Bullhead City grew 24 percent.) It's not just for ranchers and miners anymore.
The area United Way estimates that 200 to 400 homeless populate the region at any one time. Total Arizona estimates range from 8,000 to 14,000, with about 15 percent in areas outside the state's three most populous counties, Maricopa, Pima and Yuma.
And in Kingman, as in other booming areas, word of jobs brings more hopefuls than there are spots to give them. And just because companies are offering doesn't mean a high school education is enough to qualify or that affordable housing exists. The growth people talk about here is in Stockton Hill, where homes run from $80,000 to $150,000, and in Hualapai, where they're more in the $300,000 to $400,000 range; not in the derelict trailer parks.
Or at St. Theresa's, where the transient parade continues like a game of musical chairs. Steve Dennis was a young man on his way from Boston to Las Vegas, looking for work, when his car got totaled in Wikieup. "This is the first time I've been homeless," he says, looking out of place. "It's not a good feeling. But I'll get through it." He just started work at a local ranch.
Elmer Davis, who helps with work around the shelter in exchange for room and board, was on his way to California when he got sidetracked in Kingman.
"People aren't flocking to these rural communities hoping to find a homeless program they can live off of," he says. "But I realized I would have been on the streets in northern California. I would much rather be here."
Dean Dilbeck says he has plenty of job prospects in the city he and his wife want to make their home. Trouble is, they won't pay off for a while, and other people need the shelter; the Dilbecks have been here two weeks. "I'm determined to live in Kingman," says Dean, a lean man with nappy hair. "This is a nice town. It seems like everybody's in the '60s. I love the mountains."
"We don't want to be on welfare," Kathy Dilbeck says. "We want to work."
When they were in Kingman two years ago, she worked at the shelter, waking at 3a.m. to prepare meals for boarders. Then she'd go to her second job as a waitress at a Kingman restaurant. "I worked my butt off," she says.
She says, "It's not our choice to be homeless. We've just had a hardship in our lives."
But two weeks are too long here when others need the space. Dean just worked 21 hours straight, pulling weeds, waxing a boat. Whatever it took to make bus fare to Bakersfield. The Dilbecks are reluctantly returning to California to stay with Kathy's dad until Dean can earn enough to buy a car.
"I'll tell you one thing," Dean says while the children play with the backyard dog. "Being in this position definitely pulls your family together."
Kathy: "But you know, the kids are clothed and bathed, no matter what. If I have to beg, borrow or steal, these kids will be taken care of."
Just doing our job, City Manager Lou Sorensen says of the cease-and-desist order issued by Kingman's planning and zoning department. "The laws are there," he says, "and we've gotta enforce them."
Jerry Street, the county health director, says the same. Officials received a complaint about St. Theresa's, followed up with an inspection and found Falance to be in violation.
Judging by the support Falance has from the community, the need for a shelter is apparently quite strong, Sorensen says. "There's a lot of homeless people, maybe a half-dozen on the streets on occasion," he estimates.
Mayor Carol Anderson puts the number of homeless in town at more like 15 or 20, and says needy people off the interstate usually move on with gas money from a local charity program run by St. Vincent dePaul.
But the estimates they give are pretty much what Falance figures are Kingman's permanent homeless rolls, the guys who sit around and panhandle at Circle K and give the local business community reason to feel threatened.
"All we're concerned about is the health and safety of the people [at the church]," says City Attorney Charlotte Wells. "Otherwise, we're treating them as second-class citizens."
Shelter supporters don't see it that way when the alternative is sending people onto the streets. In August, a man living downtown was killed in what was thought to be one of several attacks on Kingman transients by a group of youths who gathered nightly and harassed the homeless.
And wouldn't people who might sleep in a car or under a bush feel less "second class" under the roof of St. Theresa's?
"I have no idea," Wells says, "except that the city has an objective. We must treat this facility like any other facility in town."
It was strange, though, how cease-and-desist orders were never issued until Falance won a major victory concerning the donated downtown motel. They were never issued despite longtime knowledge of his sheltering activities, knowledge that not only was common in Kingman, but stretched all the way to Phoenix and state homeless coordinator Vic Hudenko, who'd heard all about St. Theresa's.
Prodigal House was born four years ago, when a police officer found a woman and her baby sleeping under cardboard in a Kingman alley. The officer dialed Falance, who took in the pair.
Homeless advocates say it takes about $250,000 to start a full-service shelter from scratch, but Falance has had to do it the hard way, scraping for any buildings he could get.
As he found more and more people who needed shelter, Falance began looking for a more suitable place. First came a house that was too small and then a house that was condemned, and then it was back to St.Theresa's.
Shelter operations were running $1,100 a month with an average of 20 people staying every night, but Falance managed with money from his own pocket, food donated from supermarkets, and funds raised via contributions and guilty consciences. Mayonnaise jars full of coins appeared on the doorstep.
Falance bought an old house in a downtown neighborhood in August 1994, but he faced angry neighborhood resistance even though he requires shelter guests to follow church guidelines. For example, no one smelling of booze can enter, and unmarried couples must sleep separately.
He tried to assure neighbors that his guests were just people who'd fallen on hard times, who could get back on their feet again with a little help, but he couldn't sway fears that troublesome vagrants known to roam downtown would show up on their doorsteps.
"Look at me," says Laura Gilliam as she shelves merchandise at Dollarmania, the discount store she runs in downtown Kingman. "I stayed at the shelter for a week. Do I look like a bum? [Falance] helped me and my husband. We came here with nine dollars in our pockets."
The city's planning and zoning commission said yes to the house site, saying the need for a shelter outweighed the residents' fears. But in the face of an overflow crowd of fretting homeowners and the news that Falance had just been donated a dilapidated downtown motel, the city council said no.
Try the motel instead, it said.
Falance told the council that renovations to the motel would take at least six months. What were people to do in the meantime?
"I can't understand why the city's being so down on him," says an anonymous retiree who has given sizable donations to Falance's operation. "They can bring in those damn codes for anything. You'd think they'd be so happy to have someone doing it, they'd help him."
So Falance set to work on the old Star Motel, a beaten set of wood-frame buildings that dates to the 1940s. The property was worth about $150,000.
"I don't think they could have picked a much better location," says city planner Rob Owen. The site was perfect. It was large. It was downtown, away from residential areas.
It was on Route 66.
Falance and his helpers trundled 26 truckloads of garbage off the motel grounds as they began preparations for refurbishment. But already, local business owners were growing uneasy about their new neighbor.
Downtown merchants and the Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce have big plans for this historic bend of east Andy Devine Avenue, which is what Route 66 is called inside Kingman city limits. The idea is to renovate and re-create its turn-of-the-century charm and make it a tourist attraction.
The idea of a homeless shelter nearby did not sit well with people like Scott Dunton, the man behind Mr. D'z diner and Dream Machines, two of the historic thoroughfare's landmark businesses. It also riled Tom Anglin, a onetime president of the Downtown Merchants Association (DTMA) who mysteriously skipped town a few weeks ago. Anglin, ironically, was an art gallery operator who once sought shelter at Prodigal House in 1994. Falance has the signature to prove it.
The merchants' dread was an old refrain: If you build it, they will come.
Dunton, who did not return calls from New Times, made no secret of his dismay during DTMA meetings in July. Visions of street people panhandled in his head. A homeless woman came into his restaurant, he said, wearing no bra. Bums were already downtown, drinking and urinating in public. Why bring in more?
"I don't have a particular problem with it as long as it's run properly," says DTMA member Sue Ferry, whose Oldtown Coffeehouse is near the motel.
"The shelter, from what I'm told, is not going to accept drinkers and drug addicts, but those are the type of people attracted to places like that," says Pat Davis, an antique-store owner and current DTMA president. The association itself, she says, took no stance on the shelter, but she opposes having it there.
"If they're turned away, where are they going to go?" Davis asks. "I'm not sure exactly where [the shelter] should be located. But certainly not on our major tourist attraction."
At its meeting of July 17, after making a list of conditions designed to appease merchant concerns, the city gave its tentative nod to the Star Motel. Among the conditions were nighttime security lighting, adequate staffing and a minimum of loitering around the property.
Falance claimed triumph. Prodigal House would open by the end of the year. "We got the miracle loaves and fishes," he says.
The joy was short-lived.
Within weeks, in actions taken under the pretense that St. Theresa's guest activities had suddenly been unearthed, city and county officials issued cease-and-desist orders against Falance and St. Theresa's, charging him with unlawful and improper operation of a homeless shelter.
"That was a last resort," says City Attorney Charlotte Wells. "We're still not standing on the corner watching their every move."
A beleaguered Father Falance says, "They're trying to excite me into another heart bypass. But the Catholic Church don't close because a guy dies."
Falance has big plans for Prodigal House. The homeless passing through town with no work and no bed will have a decent place to stay. He's going to open up one section of the motel for about 30 or 40 people within a few months, then refurbish the rest until he can sleep 75 people in all.
"We're getting them in this town," he insists. "Our object is to sleep them and move them through. But if they come here and want to live here, we can't stop 'em."
Plants, flowers, iron grating, that should keep the merchants happy. "It certainly won't degrade Route 66," he says.
And in the meantime, St. Theresa's nightly guest count hovers dangerously close to its limit, awaiting the eventual inspection that could land Falance in trouble again.
One of the weekly phone surveys that ran in a local paper last month asked whether Falance should be required to bring the church in line with city codes. Everyone who called said no.
"The rank-and-file people don't seem to have a problem with the concept that a church should be allowed to do certain things that a business can't," Giamporcaro says.
Kingman Mayor Anderson says Falance can't be singled out for special treatment because of his mission, but neither she nor anyone else can provide a good answer as to why authorities looked the other way in previous inspections, then decided to stop. The answer she does provide is rather breathtaking.
"You see the needs of these people," she says, "but how far can a city or county agency go in ignoring a health hazard just to provide a roof over someone's head?"
On a cold morning beginning to warm with the sun, Kathy and Dean Dilbeck round up their bundled kids and get ready to board a bus. The driver is spelling out the itinerary while Kathy holds Dean Jr. snug in her arms--they'll stop in Barstow, then transfer to Bakersfield.
Dean haggles over carry-on luggage. They can't afford to lose anything. Kathy boards with the kids, and Deiane climbs on and waves to cars leaving the adjacent McDonald's parking lot on old Route 66.
"I'll be back," Dean says. He chuckles and motions at a nearby woman, large and blond, wearing flip-flops and draped in a shirt with a mallard-duck motif. "Look at the way people dress. It's trapped in the '60s. It's small. There's no gangs. I like it here."
And a journey resumes--one more family goes Greyhounding down the interstate.
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