By ROBYN ZELICKSON
A common misconception about homelessness is that people choose to live on the streets. But, it’s not always a choice. Most often, it’s unfortunate and uncontrollable circumstances of one sort or another.
To try and alleviate some of those circumstances, Pima Community College students held an event at Downtown Campus on April 22.
According to Honors Club student-organizer Corinne Anderson, 90 walk-in guests were served. In addition, food for 30 homeless vets was sent to Veterans On Patrol’s Bravo Base–Camp Conklin.
“There were 54 volunteers from Pima and 25 volunteers from Elements City Church distributing food,” Anderson said. “We distributed over 1,000 items, not counting groceries. Texas Roadhouse Marana served a hot lunch to 150 people.”
One guest in attendance was Emilee, who came to PCC from the VOP’s Bravo Base – Camp Conklin with her friend Mary.
Although Mary is a veteran, Emilee and her husband Benny are not. They also have two sons, who are 19 and 17 years of age.
“VOP is not a registered nonprofit, but they do operate from donations,” Emilee said. “They have four or five camps throughout the state of Arizona. Their primary focus is veterans, but they also help civilian homeless, families, battered women and individuals detoxing off of drugs.”
Benny was diagnosed with lymphoma three years ago. Eventually, he had to quit working due to complications from chemotherapy. Still, they were able to stay afloat for about a year and a half.
They started losing things little by little. At first it was their cars, then they had to sell the furniture to feed the kids. Then they lost the house. By the beginning of March, they were completely homeless.
They were living in Mesa, down the street from VOP–Alpha Base.
“We were invited to stay there because we had our two children and Benny has a chronic illness,” Emilee said. “They were very, very, very welcoming. You come on base, they have a tent for you and they feed you.”
VOP has connections and resources to ensure access to health care, rehabilitation and a phone if needed. Organizers make sure they are a part of the transition from homelessness and that everyone has the resources they need.
The organization is run by volunteers, many of whom contribute their own money. VOP found out Emilee wanted to move her family to Tucson, where they had family resources. In mid-March, volunteers transported the family to Tucson’s Bravo Base at 22nd Street and Park Avenue.
“Benny is the head of security at the camp and my older son works security at the camp also,” Emilee said. “I am the ‘everything girl.’ I help with supplies, do the cooking and help the homeless individuals that come by the camp.”
The camp runs on donations, and keeps a supply tent for homeless individuals who may come by needing help. It’s stocked with clothing, blankets and personal care kits. There isn’t room to take in anyone else, but people seeking aid are given resources and the supplies that they need.
Emilee found out about the event from the co-commander of the base, who knows Anderson. Anderson’s fiancé volunteered his day to drive to the base, to homeless shelters and to various street locations, giving people rides to and from the event.
The feedback he received when driving people back to their pickup location was very positive. Some said that they felt like guests at a party and others simply expressed their gratitude.
“It was an amazing event,” Emilee said. “Everyone there was very nice and very approachable and that is extremely important. When you’re homeless, first of all there’s that shame. You feel stupid, you feel like an ass, you feel embarrassed. It really is a test of character, to say the least.”
Emilee said the transition has been very difficult for her. She felt looked down upon. The fact that the volunteers at R.I.S.E. were so warm and welcoming helped Emilee overcome her discomfort.
“You’re already in that position where you feel like people are talking about you,” she said. “You’re not welcome anywhere, and so you already have to deal with that in the everyday world. I’m stubborn and prideful, yet I felt very comfortable at the event, so that speaks volumes.”
Emilee said a lot of people end up going without help because they don’t want to deal with the repercussions of what people think. It’s a big problem because there’s so much ignorance around homelessness.
Too many people think it’s homeless peoples’ fault, that they choose that life and that they can work but don’t want to, she said. It’s really seldom the case, especially with the cost of living being so high and jobs being so hard to come by. It can happen to anybody.
“I might be the poster child for that,” Emilee said. “I have a corporate background and if people knew about that, they would say, ‘How are you homeless?’”
For Emilee, being homeless has been a humbling experience, but one for which she is grateful. She hopes to change the mindset of people who have the wrong idea about homelessness.
“Three years ago, my husband was remodeling homes and we were making $125,000 a year, and now we’re on the streets because of an illness and things just snowballing,” Emilee said.
“People think you have to be a worthless bum to be homeless, and it really doesn’t work that way,” she said.