Bobby Burns: Shelter experience ‘a blessing’


PCC counselor Bobby Burns fills his office with personal items, including a photo of him with Trevor Miles.

When Pima Community College counselor Bobby Burns came to Tucson in the early ‘90s, he had just $200 in his pockets.

“I made some bad choices back in the day,” Burns said. “I didn’t have a job and didn’t have any money.”

Burns, who was born and raised in Phoenix, joined the Navy soon after he graduated from high school in 1978. He spent six years as a cook, but originally wanted to be a journalist.

“It turned out that I hadn’t the score high enough to get the training for that,” he said. “Cooking was something that I was always fascinated with, so I did that.”

Education was another passion. After leaving the Navy, Burns earned a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University and found work teaching in elementary and high schools.

Things didn’t go as planned after he resigned his last job in Phoenix.

Burns came to Tucson and found the Primavera Foundation, a shelter for homeless men on Benson Highway. The shelter offers men beds, meals, showers and other resources necessary to help them get back on their feet.

He ended up spending about 50 days at Primavera.

“On my first night I felt scared, I felt alone, I felt hopeless,” he said. “My self-esteem was low and I felt that my life was in chaos. Once I started building my confidence back, I got better and better.”

While still living at the shelter, he began working as a high school substitute teacher. He also began to keep a journal of his experiences at Primavera.

“I was able to save up money, and I got an affordable house,” Burns said. “After that, I moved to a small downtown apartment. I was able to get back on my feet by saving up money and making the right choices.”

He turned his journal about his time at the Primavera Foundation into a memoir called “Shelter.”

“Writing was always a passion,” Burns said. “Even when I was a kid I wanted to write but I didn’t know how to, so over the years I’ve learned a little bit about writing.”

After getting rejected by many publishers, Burns found one in 1998 who believed in his book. Burns completed a nine-city book tour and about 200 interviews.

An important moment came when he was featured in “Publishers Weekly,” a magazine considered the bible of publishing by many authors.

“Writing about poverty or homelessness are rarely best sellers,” Burns said. “I thought this isn’t probably a bestseller, but it is still in print, it’s in the second printing.”

Burns served on the Primavera Foundation board of directors for a while soon after he left the facility, and he still maintains relationships with people that he met there.

Since 2001, Burns has worked at the PCC Northwest Campus giving academic advice to students.

“Being an advisor happened kind of by accident,” Burns said. “I was teaching developmental writing at Pima, and a friend of mine said that they needed help during the busy season. I got involved with advising just part time and then full time.”

His experience at the shelter also inspired Burns to write poetry.

“In the book, I did write some poems that I didn’t even think were poems,” he said. “I was just experimenting.”

During an interview, a reporter mentioned that his poetry stood out. It gave Burns some ideas, and he began to play around with them.

For the past four years, Burns has been writing a book of poetry. He writes about his past life experiences and about the life he has now with his wife Pamela and their 2-year-old son, Trevor Miles.

“The experience in the shelter was meant to be,” Burns said. “It was a blessing that I ended up homeless, because my life is really getting better as a result of it.”

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