Ray Cummings, 58, is a member of the Navajo Nation lived on the streets of Phoenix for fifteen years before he got services that allow him to pay rent and get off the streets. Cummings now helps other homeless Native Americans manuever their way in getting assistance. (Photo by Valarie Tom)

Homeless Bear the Heat in the Valley of the Sun

Valarie Tom
6/14/11

PHOENIX, ARIZONA—Late afternoon is usually when the Arizona sun is the hottest. The ground absorbs the heat and sweltering waves of heat immerge causing temperatures to soar amid the arid desert climate. While the vast majority of Maricopa County’s 4 million residents stay indoors, thousands of homeless transients must seek other alternatives to the summer’s scorching heat.

On June 8 the temperature reached up to 98 degrees. So far this summer there have been a few days where the temperature went into triple digits. However, finding ways to stay out of the heat is one challenge the homeless in Phoenix face each day.

For transient “Chris,” a Salt River Pima, keeping out of the heat is not his biggest concern since most of the food banks, churches and homeless shelters give out free water.

You have to watch out for bees and hornet’s nest under the eaves of houses,” he said pushing his cart piled high with plastic containers, blankets, clothes, boxes and cans.

In 2010, close to 3,000 people were counted as homeless, according to Laura DiTroia, program manager with Lodestar Day Resource Center.

Of that number, DiTroia said Native Americans accounted for a “couple hundred, but it fluctuates since they transition to their home land on the reservations and with family that live in the city.”

Ray Cummings, 58, is a member of the Navajo Nation from Window Rock, Arizona and now makes his home in the Valley of the Sun. Cummings just filled his water bottle and wears sun glasses and a cap to shield his face from the sun.

Diminutive in stature and lithe, Cummings says the key to keeping comfortable is to “carry a lot of water” and try to find shade.

Cummings lived on the streets of Phoenix for 15 years and knows a few things. Like how to get help in the form of public assistance, food, clothes, transportation, shelter and spiritual guidance from religious leaders and family.

“I never go hungry,” said Cummings as he walks along the street near 11th Avenue and Jackson Street. “I use to live on the street and know where to get free water on hot days.”

Amazingly, Cummings says the convenient stores will give out courtesy cups and free ice.

Places like Lodestar Day Resource Center, Society of St. Vincent DePaul, André House of Arizona and Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) purposely settled within a tenth of a mile within each other so clients would not have to travel all over town to seek assistance.

Cummings said he gets food stamps, free health care with the state's medicaid agency Arizona Health Care Cost and Containment Services and a monthly disability check which he uses for rent.

“Right now I help those who are sort of new to the system and tell them how to get help,” said Cummings. “In the past few years, it seems like more [Native Americans] are using the food banks, shelters and are on the streets.”

Cummings believes the economy and loss of jobs is the main reason why so many Native Americans from the various tribes in Arizona and across the country are in Maricopa County these days.

“Sometimes I see people who are lost and don’t know how to get help. I explain to them they can get free clothes, food, shelter, health care, eyeglasses and guidance from all these places,” Cummings gestures toward buildings that house social services, public assistance, food and shelter.

Yet, DiTroia said just because you give someone shelter, food and clothing, doesn’t mean you heal the entire person.

“We deal with mental illness and with people who are spiritually beaten down.”

DiTroia said their clients come from all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, races and sexes.

“Some of our clients need help with material items, but getting them help spiritually is what can be challenging. Lodestar is an innovative program designed to serve as a gateway to self-sufficiency and success for homeless individuals,” explains DiTroia.

Modulated voices of clients filter throughout the Lodestar Day Resource Center. Volunteers and staff are friendly and positive in action and in their words.

Two staff members explain to a homeless lady that she can check next door with CASS to see if they have room for her to sleep later that night. Two Maricopa County deputies stand behind a counter and call out greetings to those they know.

The Lodestar main entry way seems more like a huge colorful gym, with painted murals and positive words written on the painted beige brick walls. Clients are seated around tables as an evaporated cooler blows cool air.

On the outer realms of the circular building are housed different offices for housing services, veteran assistance, Alcohol Anonymous, GED classes and many classes that offer up opportunities for arts and music.

There is even a program to help homeless clients with guidance for mental, spiritual and emotional counseling.

DiTroia said there is help for anyone who wants help.

“One of the philosophies is we believe in the holistic approach,” DiTroia said as she walks down the hall to check on a client who requested her to listen to him play on the piano. “There’s more to just giving someone a home. There’s issues they have to address—inner issues—and it takes awhile to build that trust and be supportive the whole time.”

Building trust and being helpful is one component of helping Phoenix’s homeless, but if one wants help, they have to be willing to make that first step.

“Lots of people need help. You have to be assertive and speak for yourself. If you look for help, it’s there,” said Cummings. “If you linger on the street, nothing will happen.”

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