Fighting the System


By Anne Stegen

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Making his own system

By Corie Stark

Just a few miles from St. Vincent de Paul in downtown Phoenix, a small group of Occupy Phoenix protesters set up camp to unify their crusade.

Rick, who only goes by first name, supports the 99%, but finds his fellow comrades slowly veering off track.

"I feel I can utilize my abilities without sitting there and listening to people complain about stuff. They just whine," he said. "I want to go out and do it."

But no matter what, he'll always disagree with the 1%. And that's largely due to his strong opinions on how the Arizona judicial system caused him to lose everything.

Rick moved to Arizona from Pennsylvania after his older brother died. Before he knew it, he'd settled in Phoenix, landing a job as a heavy equipment operator at a local construction company.

"I was living the quote-unquote American Dream," he said.

A degenerative back disorder plagued him to the point of near immobilization, making work impossible. Eventually, he was out of a job.

"I'm in constant pain," he said. "I can't get anywhere without my walker."

After that came more trouble.

Rick has constantly moved, making learning intricate state policies difficult to learn. One night, after having only one drink, he was stopped by the cops.

"I thought I'd be a smartass and prove to them I was sober," he said. "So I took the breathalyzer."

Because of prior DUI's in other tests, the officer cited Rick with a "DUI to the slightest degree" and arrested him.

His arrest turned into a three-year stint in county jail. Rick spent most of his money on legal guidance; however, had he not taken a plea-bargain his three-year sentence would have swelled to 12.

Upon arrest, Rick's cellphone was confiscated. He stored all his information there and without it, was unable to contact anyone of his situation.

Nobody knew to help him make sure his house and possessions stayed in tact.

"By the time I got out of prison, I had nowhere to go," he said. "It didn't take me long to lose everything."

Prison officers suggested St. Vincent de Paul as a refuge. With no options, Rick ended up there. A year later, he still visits.

"I don't come as much as I use to," he said. "My situation has brightened a bit."

In fact, he's found an apartment through Section 8 Housing, but getting there was a struggle. Rick collided with workers time and time again, constantly being rerouted. For over a month he was redirected only to discover the person he needed to contact was severely ill.

"I kept wondering, 'why is he out?'" he said. "He could have been dead for all I care, but there was no communication."

Rick attended several city council meetings, raising his concerns about Section 8. After weeks of looking for answers, assistant city manger Ed Zuercher approached him.

"Next thing I knew, I had an apartment," he said. "All you have to do is rattle their cages a little bit."

Rick plans to turn his rattling into thunder. Currently, he's working on creating his own organization to help first time homeless people adapt.

"Between doctors visits for my disorder and working on this, I'm constantly on the go," he said.

Once established, he plans to call the agency "First Time Lost." His main prerogative is to keep families together.

"If you're homeless for the first time with a family, you should stay together," he said. "So many places split up families and the last thing they need to do is split up."

He's also interested in helping those who truly need it. Often times at St. Vincent, he feels most people aren't trying to better their situation. He takes no time socializing with anyone lying around outside or panhandlers.

"I want to help people who really need the help," he said. "Like the man with a job whose company folded and he got fired or the woman with kids who just lost her job—those people."

Agencies such as Central Arizona Shelter Services are helping him. He's focused mostly on where to place people and what to do tell them. People who've recently gotten out of prison hold a special place in his heart and deserve extra attention, in his opinion.

"I feel like the Arizona system wants you to be miserable," he said. "I fought like hell to get situated and I'm going to help others fight, too."

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A home is not enough

By Jamie Warren

With shelter over his head and a job of 26 years, 58-year-old Joe Smith, who prefers not to use his real name, doesn't sound like the average St. Vincent de Paul client.

But 44 years ago, Smith and his younger brother visited a food bank for the first time. It wasn't because they were homeless, but instead, because they were curious.

Coming from a poor family, they were thankful for the convenient opportunity of grabbing a free meal. And to this day, they still take the opportunity three to four times a week.

"We're grateful this place exists," said Smith.

Smith and his brother live together in an apartment close enough for Smith to ride his bike. He earns $10 an hour delivering pallets from a flatbed truck, and enjoys going to the library in his spare time.

But with a struggling economy, Smith knows just how quickly someone can lose his or her job.

"You learn to live check by check," he said.

With fears of being laid off, Smith emphasized the importance of a good education.

"Stay on top of things," he said. "Make your grades."

After dropping out of high school his junior year, Smith never took the time to pursue a greater career. Another thing he never pursued was a family.

He believes it's too hard to find a "suitable" wife in this type of community because people can easily take advantage of others. When asked about the possibility of having children, Smith only leaned back in his chair and laughed, saying he made up his mind a long time ago that he was never having kids.

With the many economic challenges in his life, Smith doesn't exactly know where he will be in the future. When asked about his goals, he once again only laughed.

"I wish you could've asked me that 10 to 15 years ago," he said.

But among the different turns Smith has taken in his life, he's thankful for St. Vincent de Paul, taking advantage of the many valuable services they have to offer.

"I'm hangin' in there," Smith said. "That's all you can do."

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By Amanda Roberts

With his faded multi-colored fedora hat, John "Peace" looked as though he would belong somewhere else instead of St. Vincent de Paul's dining area.

He came to watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Arizona Cardinals.

He tapped his finger on his hand where a faint blue peace sign tattoo is beside the joint of his thumb.

"This is what I go by," he said, "instead of a last name. It is who I am, but you can call me John."

Having been all over the country, he settled on Arizona because of the warmer climate. He preferred going to St. Vincent de Paul over other shelters in the area.

"I was sitting outside before they opened the doors for the game. I was reading my Bible," he said.

He has read his King James Bible 50 times, memorizing each passage and Scripture.

He had one suggestion to those around him: Own your name.

"Your name is your name. Bury your father's name, 'cause no one is going to remember you otherwise. You have a natural body and a spiritual body."

Despite being without a home, John did not mind.

"I come here [St. Vincent de Paul] for the food, and I get some clothes. I only need my Bible, and I'm good. I'm content."

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Out of touch

by Anne Stegen

Steve Smith spoke simply and humbly. He said he has been receiving services from St. Vincent de Paul off and on for 30 years.

"I've been out of touch for a long time," he said.

Never faltering, he believes in himself. "Nobody's going to support you. You've got to support yourself." On that principle he works to survive.

He says that there is a certain attitude about people who are homeless.

"Some people treat you different because they know you're homeless. They push you away. If you got money, people like you."

With that in mind, his biggest challenge is to "move on with a positive attitude."

The future is disinterested for Smith; it is neither hopeful nor dark.

"I don't know what's next for me. Nobody knows what's next."
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