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

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin