He Is Risen; They Are Not

Easter Sunday morning. Slowly, you walk into the alley south of Madison Street. It's still partially dark. It's 6:35 a.m.

A steady rain falls. It's been raining all night.
On the radio, they talk of flash flood warnings. The fat copies of the Sunday Republic make a last-ditch effort to sell ValTrans. There'll be no celebration of emergence from the tomb here. No hunt for Easter eggs; no freshly cut flowers exchanged.

There is nothing to celebrate here. These people are buried. Homeless men and women form a tight, jealous line against the brick wall of what many years ago was once the county jail. Their greatest fear is that someone will jump into line ahead of them.

The all-night rain has temporarily stolen their last shred of dignity. Some wear blankets over their heads and shoulders. They look like figures in those old black- and-white photos from concentration camps.

Some tremble openly. Their clothes are sodden. Their hair hangs down over their foreheads in wet, shining rings. They push as close to the brick wall as possible to avoid the still-falling rain.

None of these people care about the radio's flash flood warnings. None have read the Sunday-morning paper.

Most spent the night trying to sleep in three-foot-high green tents in a muddy field directly behind the shelter. They are worried about something more immediate to them than floods or light rail transportation.

They are homeless and they must eat.
Breakfast will be served soon in the day room of the Central Arizona Shelter.

Right now, volunteers from St. Mary's food bank unload a big truck. Everyone will be fed.

"Gimme them back, you son of a bitch," a voice screeches.
"Cantcha take a joke?" comes the answer, just as loud and every bit as aggressive.

The white man with the screeching voice and the straw-colored beard lunges at the black man with the heavily bandaged right hand. The man with the straw-colored beard wears no shoes as he moves about the alley filled with deep puddles of water. He is wearing what appears to be two pairs of heavy socks on his very long feet.

"My glasses," he shouts, almost incoherently. He lunges again toward the black man.

The black man dances back down the alley, passing along the line of men and women in the food line.

No one on the line smiles. They stare blankly at the combatants. If trouble comes, no one will take sides.

"You cain't even run, honky. Cain't even run. Why don't you go find your motherfucking shoes first?"

"Gonna get you," the man with the straw beard says. His rage and frustration are strangling him.

A man with a black tee shirt with a Coca-Cola emblem walks down the breakfast line. He stares directly into everyone's face. He is careful not to miss anyone.

"Who got my coat?" he asks. His tone is calm. There is a touch of inquisitiveness. No threat. He is like a wise and knowing detective from a television series.

"I'm looking for the somebody who took my coat. I'll find you before this day's over, too."

I watch Coca-Cola Tee Shirt as he proceeds down the breakfast line. His questions draw two reactions. Some avert their eyes, pretending not to hear. Others shake their heads from side to side in silence.

But nobody speaks. It's as though everyone on the line is terrified of everyone else.

On the line are men with scraggly beards and one-size-fits-all baseball caps. There are women carrying their clothes in plastic shopping bags.

And there are surprises. There's a well-dressed man standing under an open umbrella. He wears a cap, a fine sport coat and freshly pressed slacks. He could be on his way to the Ritz-Carlton.

There's a girl in her twenties with long blonde hair. Right behind her is a menacing-looking tall man with a black fedora pulled down low over his eyes, which are covered by the darkest sunglasses I've ever seen north of Sonora. There's also a Mexican boy of possibly fourteen, shivering in a pair of jogging shorts and a short-sleeved polo shirt.

There are Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, whites, cripples and a few men and women who are perhaps mentally deranged but no longer eligible for state hospital care. There are big women and small men and the reverse as well. Some are young. Some are old. Life has dealt them all a severe pounding. For some, it's their ego. For others it's worse. Some are alcoholics, and some are what we now call substance abusers. It's hard to bet that any will make it back. Still, the odds on this are the same as if they lived in Paradise Valley.

But there's a difference on this line. Here, it's impossible to tell whether any of them had a chance to start with.

I walk inside the shelter.
Volunteers bustle about, preparing breakfast.
I approach a man in a plaid shirt. He wears a plastic identification tag. The tag has given him a sense of authority.

"Who's running this place?" I ask.
He looks at me suspiciously. But he relents quickly. Clearly, he doesn't have that much self-confidence after all.

"Arnold runs it," he says. "I'll get him."
As he searches for Arnold, I look around the large room. There are nine ceiling fans, all running at top speed. Several dozen mattresses are piled against the back wall. This is a room in which the old men and the crippled are allowed to spend the night.

Arnold turns out to be a big man with an easy manner.
He points to a row of men with white beards and defeated faces seated at a long table that faces the door. Some are white and some are black.

"These guys are handicapped or what we call `nervous,'" Arnold says. "We got guys who get kind of touchy if you even bump up against them.

"We try to protect them. I try not to let any kids stand out there on that line, either.

"Some of the guys with jobs get to sleep inside here, too. It's not easy for them. Some don't get off their jobs until two or three in the morning. But they still have to be out of here by seven when we start to feed."

Over by the door, a shouting match has erupted.
I recognize the participants. The man with the straw-colored beard is bellowing at the black man with the bandaged hand.

The black man has returned the sunglasses. They are handsome and maybe even worth fighting for. They are prescription glasses with a deep tint and heavy frames.

The two men shout right into each other's faces. A circle of curious men has formed. The man with the beard is clearly being the aggressor now.

Arnold excuses himself.
"We really don't have things like this all that often," he says.
What happens next is the same kind of thing you see in major league baseball games. Once the antagonists realize there are sufficient forces on hand to prevent a fight, they make a big show of wanting to plunge into combat.

With Arnold--almost as big as Mean Joe Greene--in the middle, the two much smaller men lunge toward each other with gusto.

Arnold holds them both back. He warns them about the consequences of fighting in the shelter.

They walk off in different directions, muttering. There is no winner. But neither has backed down. Both have managed to save face, clearly an important thing in this society.

Arnold returns. He continues talking as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

"We'll feed them all," Arnold says. "We have plenty of food. Some will even come through twice."

His eyes are kind. He is one of them, having come out of the tents to this job, which he has held for more than a year.

Each diner carries a small cardboard plate. The first stop on the line is for oatmeal. That's followed by coffee, doughnuts, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs and oranges.

Once their trays are filled with food, the diners are hustled back out into the alley.

"We can't let them eat in here. There's just no room. We have nearly 600 people waiting on that line out there."

Outside, it's still raining. A few find shelter. Most stand in the rain and eat silently.

The amazing thing now is the silence. Most diners go off by themselves to eat in solitude. But even those who eat in groups do not talk while they eat.

Don Wheeler is in charge of the shelter. He's held the title of general manager since March 1985.

Wheeler sits in his small windowless office. He has just stuffed a large bottle of cheap wine into his desk drawer. One of the camp residents had been caught with the bottle in his possession.

There will be a hearing, Wheeler says, and then the man will be kicked out of the camp.

"This job needs a firm hand," Wheeler says. "You have to be able to recognize the cons."

Wheeler has worked in this field for 30 years, more than 25 of them with the Salvation Army, in which he was an officer.

"This is much the same kind of work," Wheeler says. "Now, however, I don't do any preaching."

He smiles when I ask about Easter Sunday.
"Easter's pretty ordinary around here. Maybe some people from the churches will come down. But other than that, it's nothing big. We save Thanksgiving and Christmas for our big doings."

"Do you ever get discouraged?" I ask.
Wheeler smiles wearily.
"The majority are very grateful for any help you give," Wheeler says. "Unfortunately, a small percentage ruins it for the majority.

"I've had some sad experiences. I've worked with so many alcoholics and substance abusers over the years."

Wheeler sighs.
"You think they're really on their way. Then they hit bottom again. Then I stop and think. I realize it could be me. So you go right on trying to help."

"Did you ever have a drinking problem?" I ask.
Wheeler smiles.
"No, I've never smoked or drank. I understand it's not easy. We just don't know what problems people have a lot of times. Some of them will succeed in getting back on their feet. We want to help them. But we have some people here who wouldn't show up for their paycheck on Friday if that was the only thing they were required to do.

"Our guests in the camp think I'm a stern, unbending man. I want them to think that. In some ways, I am. I won't put up with a con. I'd throw my own brother out of this camp if he broke the rules."

"How safe is it to live here?" I ask.
"It's as safe as almost anyplace," Wheeler says. "Don't forget we have such large numbers. There are almost 300 in the tents alone. They are people with problems. The tension level varies with each person.

"Some have pride in themselves. They shower. They clean up. They shave. Others, we have to take them and order them into the shower.

"They can stay here 35 days, but they must work steadily with a counselor who helps them try to get a job. That's not easy. These people--most of them-- don't have cars. You are severely handicapped here if you don't have a car. "We hand out bus passes. Some have bikes. But it just isn't easy to find a job these days."

Wheeler has worked with the homeless for three decades, both in the Midwest and now in Arizona. He has seen a big change.

"The homeless individual is now younger. They used to be in their forties and fifties. Now we see them in their twenties. We see young families with babies and toddlers. We are seeing more young families all the time.

"It will get worse. There are no jobs. The story is always pretty much the same. They came here in their car because there was no work back in Iowa or Michigan or Illinois.

"So the husband and wife and the little kids head out for Arizona. The weather's great. Certainly, they can find a job.

"By the time they get here they're almost broke. Maybe they work for a while. But they work for minimum wage. And once they miss a paycheck, they're broke. After they miss a couple of paychecks, they're on their way down to us."

Wheeler urges me to call Mary Orton, who is the executive director of the center.

Orton directs the overall job of trying to get the homeless back into society.

"People think the homeless are all drunks or crazy people. We have had ex-cops, a former disk jockey. There was even a former Republican state legislator from Delaware here in the camp. There are college graduates and Vietnam veterans and, saddest of all, so many women who are alone. "Try to find work when you don't have 35 cents to get the Republic classifieds. If you have the paper, maybe you don't have the money it takes to get making phone calls."

Orton hesitates.
"There are some stories of great valor. We had a young woman with two small kids. She found a job. But in order to go to work, she had to take her infant child on the bus to a place to stay. Then she had to take another bus and drop off her second child. And she had to be at work by 8 a.m.

"After work, she had to pick them up again by taking buses. She spent eight hours at work and four hours on buses every day.

"The buses aren't predictable. Sometimes this made her late for work. So she got fired from her job.

"We have people here with great skills. Bill Schulz gave us some computers when he quit his campaign for governor. We had no way to set them up. We put a notice on the bulletin board for help.

"It turns out one of the men living in the tents had a doctor's degree in computers. He came right over and set them up easily. Nothing surprises me about the possibilities that exist within these people anymore."

The notice on the bulletin board at the park office where the homeless sleep contained a simple message.

There would be an Easter Sunday service at the Faith Temple, a Pentecostal church on 51st Avenue, at 11 a.m. A bus would carry the homeless to and from the service. A hot lunch would be served.

The bus for the service pulled out with 67 homeless men aboard.
Far from the shelter, Pastor Ron Garrett spoke to them of the Easter story.

They were fed a lunch of chicken and ham in a tent outside the church. And after it was all over, each man was presented with a $2 gift.

Slowly, in the afternoon rain, the bus made its way back to the shelter.
Shortly before the sun went down, another long line would form in the rain at the shelter.

They would eat dinner in the rain and then look for a dry place to sleep during the night, when the temperature would drop to 48 degrees.

There's no need to worry about the cruelty of the rich to the poor. Our salvation rests in the unfailing kindness the poor exhibit to the rich. William Butler Yeats once wrote:

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick