J.R. HITSTHE ROAD
The stands around the baseball diamond at University Park in downtown Phoenix are spotted with spectators but no one is playing ball at 10 a.m. on Friday. These people are just sitting, homeless.
J.R. Murphy, a veteran of the streets himself, moves among the men stretched out on the grassy playing field. Some of the guys are on bedrolls, others have newspapers spread out between them and the ground.
Murphy's complaint is that people don't understand the level of talent the homeless have. He says the shelters have craftspeople who could "build you a skyscraper--pipe fitters, carpenters, you name it. The problem with Phoenix is everything is computer programming." Murphy talks up the idle strangers easily. This guy's in town for the winter from Idaho. He lost his driver's license and his job when he was thrown in jail for drunk driving. Last night he slept in one of the armories that opened early after the City Hall sit-in of Brenda Barbon.
In the outfield, a fellow from Washington explains that he lost everything in a divorce: VCR, TV, car, cash, furniture. Everything. An auto detailer by trade, he refuses to sleep in the shelters even though he says University Park is extremely dangerous because of all the drugs.
Hell, yes, the streets are dangerous, says Murphy.
"We've had people sleeping behind St. Vincent de Paul. One guy was knifed to death. The guy who killed him went back to his sleeping bag about four feet away and went to sleep. The police kick people out of University Park after dark but they sneak back in. They'll kill you; they don't even know if you've got money in your pocket. They'll kill you. It's the drugs, the mental illness."
Before he was homeless, Murphy was a state legislator and a personnel manager in Delaware. Then his wife asked for a divorce. That was 1984.
"I lived in a $106,000 house. I left it to her, left the two cars, the stock, everything. I took a couple of thousand and got on a plane. Found myself in Denver. I went up to the big rodeo in Cheyenne, saw the Air Force Academy."
Murphy saw quite a bit of the West but by 1986 he was broke when he rolled into Phoenix. After bunking at the CASS homeless shelter, he set out with resumes looking for work.
"I had an accident on Grand Avenue. The cops said I failed to do something or other. I ended up with ten broken ribs. I was in the hospital a month and got pneumonia there. When I got out, I had them take me to the homeless shelter.
"It'd been over a month since my accident. When I went to get my car, the car was gone, my suits were gone, my golf clubs were gone, my top coat was gone. After a certain period of time, they can sell off your stuff."
Murphy slept in the outdoor lot behind CASS that was used as a campground by the shelter.
"I stayed in Ramada 5 with a wonderful guy in his sixties, Poppy Richards. He didn't allow no fights, no stabbings, no murders. We'd crack a few food stamps and when we had enough money we'd get a bottle of Mad Dog and pass it around. Everybody would have a few ounces but no one would get whacked out. One thing about the homeless, they share."
Murphy got a job as a volunteer in CASS.
"A lot of the guys don't like the shelter because the shelter is horrible. The staff and volunteers rip you off. They steal you blind. The people who run it look the other way. It's an absolute routine experience."
Murphy says he'll never forget people like Richards or other fellows like Doc and Jimmy.
"Doc was about five feet eight inches tall and 350 pounds. When I first knew him, he smoked a little marijuana. After a while he got a job at CASS and began fooling around with coke. They say it takes six months to get addicted, but I saw him do it in two. He and his roommates would all shoot up on the same needle. I said, `You guys are crazy, stupid.'
"Doc would get his paycheck for two weeks and put it all into coke. After a few hours, all the coke would be gone and Doc would have this look on his face like he was in heaven but his paycheck was gone, too."
Murphy described Jimmy as his best friend, but they had a parting after Jimmy stole $600 from an advocacy group, H.O.M.E. Front.
"I swore a warrant out for him myself. He was on his way to Bakersfield and, of course, the cops won't bring you back for something like $600, but I told him if he ever came back to Phoenix, the warrant would be hanging over his head."
After a stint as a volunteer at CASS, Murphy was eventually hired as an Outreach worker, part of a team who combed the alleys, parks, streets and river bottom looking for the mentally ill who needed help. The money for that job ran out last June and he has been unemployed since.
From his savings when he was working with the homeless, Murphy managed to get an apartment. His son, who is a standup comedian and a cook, is living with him. Though there is no tree yet, Christmas decorations dangle from an electrical cord and on the floor a miniature train track snakes beneath the television with a Santa Fe locomotive and a single Erie Lackawanna freight car. Just that quickly, J.R. Murphy could be back on the street again. Though his family has offered to bring him back to the East, Murphy is adamant about trying to work things out in Phoenix.
"I've seen people make it out of the shelter and off of the streets and I can, too. I'm a college graduate, I'm not stupid . . . I don't know what I'm going to do, I really don't. I've sent out a lot of resumes, but who's going to hire a 56-year-old man? I was in personnel for something like thirty years. I always found a reason not to hire someone 55 or 60 years old. There's always some reason."
If he had it to do all over again, would J.R. Murphy abandon everything at the age of fifty to pull a Jack Kerouac and take to the highway at the mention of divorce?
"Fuck yes, I would. People say you can't do that. You got to stay put, work your knuckles to the bone. I'm saying, `Don't tell me I can't take off and hit the road.' Fuck that."
Murphy doesn't worry about himself. He's too busy worrying about the homeless. How can we feed people in Russia and not feed our own, he argues. He thinks that what we need is another Mitch Snyder.
"I'm really sorry that man committed suicide."
Snyder and Murphy once appeared together on the same television show pushing the needs of the homeless.
"There's this woman in the audience who's saying we don't need any more shelters. See, she's got this place and she takes homeless guys in. Alcoholics, whatever. She dries them out and gets them work. Meanwhile, she's charging them $6 a night. By the time they get work, they owe her a lot. No wonder she doesn't want a shelter. So Mitch asks her how much she's making.
"The woman refuses to answer, but she starts in saying that she knows all about the homeless, that her mother was an alcoholic and on the streets for years before this woman found her.
"`Where's your mother now?' asks Mitch.
"`She's dead,' says the woman.
"`There you are,' says Mitch. `If you'd left her on the street, she'd still be alive.'"
And with that J.R. Murphy cracks up laughing.
"You see, the homeless take care of each other."
To be continued
"I'm saying, `Don't tell me I can't take off and hit the road.'
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