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Meet Raven, a Homeless Man With More Community Than Many of Us Have

Kyle T. Webster

Raven sleeps every night tucked away in an alley in East Central Phoenix.

Each morning, he grabs his bedroll and his backpack and shuffles across a quiet street to a sprawling city park.

After using the public facilities — "I don't go on the ground; I go to the bathroom in a bathroom," Raven says — he inevitably retreats to a corner of the park where a flourishing tree provides shade.

Raven, who declines to give his real name, has been living here for almost two years, he says, since a random city bus ride from downtown Phoenix landed him up on East Thomas Road. He says he walked south for about a mile, not knowing what he might find or where he would end up.

He bumped into the park, which includes an open softball field, a playground, picnic areas, and restrooms. 

 The park (we won't reveal its name or exact location) is Raven's living room.

When no one else is around, Raven sometimes speaks to the pigeons that keep him company in the soft grass on his corner.

Specifically, Raven knows Fireball (the reddish one), Big Pete (the stout one), Striper (colored like a skunk), and Bruce (who, frankly, looks like a million other pigeons).

Raven says that the quartet of birds often sits atop a silver metal garbage can near his sleeping spot, inside which he hides his food and belongings.

"They don't let anyone steal my shit," he says in a thick New York City accent. "I tell them, 'Youse guys are the greatest! Youse are going to get your bread today!'"

"Homelessness" is defined differently by various governmental agencies and sometimes includes people who are forced to live with others because of economic hardship, as well as those who live in shelters or on the street.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a chronically homeless person as "an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year."

The National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness goes a bit deeper, defining a homeless person as someone "who is not able to acquire nighttime housing or to maintain it. In large terms, it entails a category of people who, for one reason or another, do not have a home and do not have the financial prospects that will allow them to get one."

Raven fits both of those definitions.

For him, that "one reason or another" includes mental troubles, long-term alcoholism, and a lack of any family, social services, or governmental support — financial, emotional, or otherwise.

Raven is one of several hundred (no one knows exactly how many) chronically homeless men and women who live outdoors in Maricopa County on a given day.

They are true shadow dwellers.

About one-fourth of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness, according to the National Resource and Training Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness.

Officially, Raven may not yet have been deemed seriously mentally ill by the state of Arizona, though the odds are great that his palpable behavioral trouble has contributed to his longtime homelessness. 

But to just call him homeless and leave it at that is oddly misleading, even if the closest thing he has to a bed is some fallen leaves that cushion him for a few weeks in October.

Here is where Raven's story moves beyond the sadly familiar arc of the haunted and troubled who spiral into the abyss of homelessness and quiet despair.

Improbably, he has become a positive part of his park's solidly middle-class neighborhood, a gentleman who has endeared himself to many.

Raven spends endless hours at the park chatting with passersby and familiar neighbors, all of whom presumably have roofs over their heads.

"People around here have embraced Raven, and those who haven't still are able to tolerate him," says Christine Raack, one of those accepting neighbors, a married mother of a young daughter.

"Raven has become part of our community, and it's good, which is a surprise," she adds. "Some of us actually feel safer with him around all the time watching everything. He wouldn't let anything bad happen to a child or an animal in that park — ever."

If that makes it sound as if Raven is the unlikely patron saint of this urban zone, so be it — even if it's a stretch.


Raven is beyond being just quirky. At times, he slips into a dark place when the world around him — a mean-spirited city worker, the guy who doesn't pick up after his dog, the mother screaming at her young child — is simply overwhelming.

But so far, he has succeeded at remaining courteous to just about everyone who treats him and those around him with even minimal respect.

 

A hello or a smile usually will do it.

Raven prides himself on being hyper-vigilant in the park, like a sentry. He speaks of having recently alerted authorities to a used needle on the men's room floor, and how he told a hard-drug user to take it elsewhere.

"I used to be like a Guardian Angel when I was back east," Raven says, referring to the group of unarmed volunteers who mobilized in the late 1970s in New York City to fight crime in the subways wearing red berets and making "citizen's arrests."

As he often does, Raven punctuates his pronouncements with a rat-a-tat giggle and a slightly uncomfortable smile.

He appears menacing at first blush, a grizzled, disheveled hulk of a man with matted hair and a scattering of fresh scratches and healing scabs about his weather-battered face.

But his rotund shape speaks to the fact that he rarely goes hungry, thanks to the neighbors and others who include employees of a nearby supermarket and discount retail mega-store.

Two of those local workers befriended Raven about a year ago when they bumped into him at the park during an afternoon break.

"It's no big deal," says a man we'll call Greg, who works at the big market. "He's a decent guy who's down on his luck and has some problems. We just BS a little about football and stuff."

Almost daily, Raven is the recipient of sacks of groceries, sandwiches, fruit, and candy bars. Bags of ice and gallon jugs of cold water are commonplace during the hot months.

What he craves most, he admits, is an "extra-special hot dog with everything on it, the ones that cost a little more."

But Raven doesn't beg for food or money — or anything, for that matter.

"I will take a donation if someone nice wants to volunteer it," he says, almost sheepishly. "But that's it." 

Raven suffers from behavioral problems best left for a professional to sort out. Clearly, he is incapable of successfully navigating the world around him — finding and keeping a job or place to live, getting to a doctor's appointment, even knowing how to find help.

But his rock-solid sense of right and wrong would do anyone proud.

It is Raven's moral compass that has won him lasting friends in an often-cruel world where the stigma of being homeless, mentally ill, and an alcoholic is commonplace. 

One example arose a few weeks ago when he was speaking at the park with New Times.

At the time, he was emptying his pockets in preparation to wash his clothes (more on that laundering process later) and happened to pull out a wrinkled Walmart receipt. It showed payment for one package of turkey and a half-gallon of orange juice.

Raven shook his head somberly at the memory of what happened next.

Turns out that he had picked up two packages of turkey, but he apparently didn't realize until after he left that he had paid for only one.

So Raven returned to the superstore.

"They couldn't believe I wanted to pay for what I bought," he says. "They thought I was complaining and told me to leave. I got mad. I told them I'm not on welfare."

Raven says someone finally allowed him to pay the other $2.29 plus tax and go on his way.


Obviously, this story has a feel-good component — Good Samaritan neighbors bond with troubled homeless man.

But Raven's situation should not be romanticized:

Based on how long he's been living outdoors (at least five years by his own account), his life expectancy by statistic is about 25 years shorter than the average American male.

Like many longtime homeless people, Raven's age is hard to gauge: He looks anywhere from, say, his late 30s to his early 50s.

He says he is 35.

Left untreated, Raven's fragile mental state is apt to decline, as the ravages spawned by his long-term alcoholism — vodka is his daily beverage of choice — worsen.

He says he hasn't been to a doctor or dentist in recent memory. As proof, he opens his mouth to display badly deteriorated teeth.

Raven's gait is familiar to folks forced to live outdoors for long stretches. It is a kind of world-weary shuffle in which time and destination are of little consequence.

He tries to talk tough sometimes, claiming he was known as the "Black Angel of Death" in his native New York. But, in truth, he remains at the mercy of any street punk or stronger homeless person who sees fit to confront him.

Though his self-reported history varies with each telling and is impossible to confirm without his real name, this much is true: Raven is so far under the radar that he hasn't been affected by the spate of sweeping budget cutbacks in services for Arizona's poor and mentally ill.

 

He shrugs neutrally when asked about prior contacts with New York's behavioral-health system before landing here.

And of any mental-health help he may have received in Arizona, Raven says, "I don't know anyone like that here."

In this state alone, thousands of chronically homeless cycle among jails, emergency rooms, shelters, detoxification centers, and back again to the streets. But Raven swears he hasn't met with so much as a social worker since moving here, and he says any contacts with Phoenix police have been benign, not even one night in jail.

"No one can say how many guys like [Raven] are out there, but I'm happy when I hear about him and the neighbors," says Nick Margiotta, a Phoenix police officer who works closely with the chronically homeless and seriously mentally ill. "It's impossible for the 'system' to identify and try to help everyone who needs help. Sometimes it goes like this, if the person is lucky."


On a brisk weekday morning a few weeks ago, Kelley Crittenden summoned her two dogs, Angelo and Juno, for their daily walk.

She lives about a half-mile from the big park where, if no other dogs are around, she lets them run free.

Crittenden looks forward to her time in the park, mostly because of her interactions with Raven.

Their camaraderie was born one day when the homeless man took an instant liking to the dogs and their outgoing owner.

"He's a man who gets really mad at things sometimes just because," says Crittenden, a licensed acupuncturist who works out of her home. "But there is a kindness in him that comes out if you give him a chance. That wasn't so hard for me."

Raven isn't in his usual spot at the park when she and the dogs get there, which worries her some. She spots him a few hundred yards away, coming out of the restroom carrying a pile of wet clothes.

Raven explains later that he has been trying to smell better, and he uses the water sources inside the men's room both to bathe and to clean his clothes. He uses a toilet to soak his clothes, preferably on days after city workers have cleaned the facility.

Then, Raven takes the sopping items to a sink, and scrubs them best he can with a healthy squirt of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, which Crittenden provided him some months ago.

He tries to finish the task as quickly as possible so not to cause any problems for himself and because, in his words, "I don't own the place."

"Hey, Kelley," Raven says when she gets close. "How are the kids?"

"They're here to see you," she replies with a wide smile, as Juno sidles up to him, tail wagging.

The "kids" are Juno and Angelo, Crittenden's dogs, two large black-and-tan animals of indeterminate breed.

Raven reaches down and brushes Juno with his free hand. In response, the dog licks him, once.

Later, on her way home, Crittenden reflects, "He probably has no human contact at all, or minimal contact, and it's not necessarily friendly. Everybody craves a touch, even if it's just a friendly dog."

Crittenden doesn't ever offer Raven food because, as she says, just about everyone else in his world does.

But she did bring him the sports pages of the Sunday New York Times for a few weeks after he told her of his interest in the New York Jets football team.

Raven thanked her but later told her that she didn't need to do that anymore.

"I'm not dumb," he says in a separate conversation. "I have a 180 IQ if you don't test me for book stuff. But I'm at 59 [IQ] on some tests." 

Kelley Crittenden did give Raven one gift that he had no reason to return, the container of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap, which works for just about everything, including, yes, washing clothes.

She did it because Raven had an ear infection and he needed to try to keep it clean.

Crittenden also provided him with a course of antibiotics. Actually, the pills was first prescribed for Juno, her dog, but she says she looked up the drug online and trusted it was suitable for human consumption.

"I asked him if he had stopped drinking when he was on the antibiotics," she says. "He looked at me like, 'Duh, of course. What do you think?' I asked him how he was doing without drinking. 'A little angry.'

"I thought, how many of us are a little angry when we can't self-medicate when we want or do whatever it is we want to do? I asked him if this was when he was going to quit drinking. He said, 'No. I like to drink.'"

 

Raven reaches his corner of the park, still toting those wet clothes. He places them carefully item by item over a metal electrical power box.

He looks to the sky, which seems to be clearing after a chilly and blustery night.

"Need sun today," he says, gesturing toward the clothes. "Wind, too. Lots of wind."

Raven says goodbye to Crittenden and the kids, mentioning that he has to go and shop for something.

"Youse take care, Kelley," he tells her.

"You, too, Raven," she replies. "Be careful, man. You're part of the neighborhood. We need you to stay healthy!"


Raven's  verbal autobiography — the one he tells in dribs and drabs over a period of weeks — remains a mystery, even to his closest friends at the park.

His New York accent does give away part of his tale, as does his infatuation with the Jets, the team that shocked the sports world in 1969 and upset the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III.

"Seven years before I was born, but I know it was a big deal," he says. "We got the Patriots coming up this Sunday. Still got a chance to win the division."

Raven says he has two brothers — one who works as a police officer "back east" — and a sister.

He pretends not to hear a question about his relationship with his family before finally muttering, "They got their lives and I got mine."

Raven says his problems began to emerge when he was in the second grade.

"I was never an easy guy," he says. "I could figure some shit out, but everybody got mad at me all the time."

Raven's accounts of how he wound up in Arizona vary but always includes a Greyhound bus from California, tough times in downtown Phoenix, and that lucky city bus trip to East Central Phoenix.

"I don't know where I've been sometimes," he says.

In another conversation, he says he would like a more comfortable place to live somewhere, if only he could afford it.

"I have money frozen back there, but I can't touch it," he says, tantalizingly.

Gently, he is asked to elaborate.

"That's the way it goes," is all he allows, adding his machine-gun snigger as emphasis.

Raven deftly moves the conversation to more pressing matters:

The young children who live down the street and spend more time in the park than at a nearby school.

The 40-year-old lady from another side of the park who may be having sex with a young man (not that young) — and, whoops, her husband knows about it.

Another homeless man who goes by the moniker of Buddha but is anything but an enlightened one. Raven renamed him Yogi Bear as a private joke but doesn't trust him and is vigilant about his whereabouts.

Raven does not tell stories in a linear way. But for the record, we are fairly confident that he is not a serial killer disguising himself as a homeless alcoholic who sleeps in an alley and hangs out in a city park.

       

When Mariana Temboni was a senior at Arcadia High School, she would ride her bright-yellow scooter past the park on her way home (a few hundred yards away) most every day.

Temboni, who moved here from Uruguay with her family as a little girl, says she often would see people gabbing with the weird homeless guy and began to wonder about him.

"We all share a sense of empathy toward other people, no matter who they are or how they look," says the 19-year-old college student, who aspires to be a nurse.

"After awhile, when you know someone's going to be there every day, you start to wonder if you can do something to help him. I know homeless people can manipulate other people like anyone else, but it didn't look like he was doing that."

Temboni says she decided to "do a good deed" and stopped by the park one day to introduce herself to Raven.

She brought with her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a water bottle, and a children's book, The Music of Dolphins, by Karen Hesse.

The book tells the tale of a wild child raised by a pod of dolphins.

Raven graciously declined to take it, but graciously accepted the sandwich and the water.

"Just two people talking," Temboni recalls. "He let me know that he has a niece somewhere who plays softball. I told him about myself a little. It was a good visit."


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