Tue, June 25

The Loft gives the homeless an address

Janet Conchy runs the donation room at Catholic Charities, providing shirts, shoes, pants and jackets to The Loft's visitors.

Janet Conchy runs the donation room at Catholic Charities, providing shirts, shoes, pants and jackets to The Loft's visitors.

COTTONWOOD - The top half of the Catholic Charities building on Main Street has grown in three years from a single nook where homeless men and women could cook and grab a shower, to an entire floor of services.

In the nine years that programs director Carol Quasula has been with the organization, she said providing services for Cottonwood's seldom-seen homeless population has only recently gained momentum.

"The community was sending us homeless individuals, and we really didn't have services to provide to them," Quasula said. "That's when we really began to build."

The Loft was the original program to take up residence on the top floor. A kitchen, table filled with breads and cereals, combination bathroom and laundry room, and a small living area with a Christmas tree give the space the feel of a real apartment.

Visitors can make long-distance phone calls in the cozy living room space, and look for jobs or keep in touch with relatives on Facebook through a couple of mismatched PCs, soon to be replaced by four laptops.

Catholic Charities went to the Verde Valley's homeless to decide how to best supplement what organizations like The Old Town Mission and St. Vincent de Paul were already doing.

"We really asked the homeless, "What is it that is a barrier to you to continuing to be homeless?'" Quasula said. "And that's when they came up with all of the services that we currently provide that are not being provided elsewhere."

A $1.1-million grant from Supportive Services for Veterans Families is funding the most recent service to join the top floor of Catholic Charities. The funds will go toward preventing homelessness through services like utility assistance and finding permanent, sustainable housing for those who are already homeless.

Projects for Transitions from Homelessness, PATH, operates with federal mental health dollars that go from the Arizona Department of Health Services, to regional health authorities, and then to subcontractors like Catholic Charities that can provide services.

When people come into The Loft, case workers try to put them into one of four services. PATH, which helps individuals with mental illness issues, the recently launched Supportive Services for Veterans Families, and Emergency Shelter Outreach.

"A lot of people do get the Loft confused when they hear "homeless,' and so they think it's a shelter," Quasula said. "It's not. They come at 1 p.m. and they leave at 5, which is tough right now with the weather so cold."

Volunteers go where homeless individuals might be camping to inform them about services, and help connect those who may be mentally ill with the Verde Valley Guidance Clinic. PATH uses four-wheel drive vehicles to pick up people who are camped too far out of the city limits to make it into town on their own.

Outreach like that requires teams of two, which Catholic Charities could not accomplish until Janet Conchy, a member of national service corporation AmeriCorps, became involved.

"If we suspect that there are mental illness then, we turn them over to PATH," Conchy said. "Some of them may just need a driver's license or birth certificate because they can't work because it's been stolen or lost."

Conchy coordinates about 10 volunteers who put in a total of roughly 300 hours a month at the Loft, a program funded fully through donations.

Since March, 25 people have found permanent housing.

As housing efforts became successful, Conchy started coordinating the donations that were coming into the organization. A room on the top floor is dedicated to clothes and shoes, and shelves filled with nonperishables line the cramped hallways.

"We give them what they need and we let them know that it's illegal to camp in town," Conchy said.

Camping was outlawed within the city of Cottonwood in March 2009, when the city council added section X to the zoning code.

"They're here," Conchy said. "It's illegal to camp in the city limits, so you're not going to necessarily see them."

Quasula said the stigma associated with homelessness and laws that restrict camping are present in many cities across the country.

"With Cottonwood, they've invested a lot of time and money in Old Town Cottonwood, and they really don't want people that are homeless panhandling in that area," Quasula said. "They're out camping on state land, which is a little further out of town, but then there's no resources. We don't ask too much about where they're going, where they're camping."

Local law enforcement has been good about letting Catholic Charities know that the ordinance will be enforced, and campers within the city will be cited.

"What we try to tell people is, "Don't call attention to yourself,'" Quasula said. "Here are people who don't have any money. Now they have a citation, have to appear in court, they don't necessarily have calendars or reminders. So it just starts piling up."

The Spread the Warmth campaign is aimed at bringing tents, blankets and sleeping bags to the Verde Valley's homeless population.

"You're putting people back out that you know are homeless," Quasula said. "We are trying to provide them with things that are going to keep them alive."

Catholic Charities does a winter and summer homeless count, which holds steady at about 65 in the Verde Valley.

As some people are moved into permanent housing, others are becoming homeless, keeping the count in the mid-to-high 60s.

"Many of these individuals are residents of the Verde Valley," Quasula said. "When hard times hit, they found themselves in crisis. They had their apartments for a while, then they had their car for a while, and then, as time went on, they lost all of those things."

Mental health issues keep most of the Loft's visitors homeless.

"What we're always trying to do is engage them in services and other programs," Quasula said.

Substance abuse is also prevalent, and many others were gainfully employed when less hours or losing a job completely confronted them with the prospect of losing their homes and cars.

"It's been tough here in the Verde Valley the last few years," Quasula said. "Once you fall into homelessness, it's really difficult without some support and some services to really get your feet back under you."

Catholic Charities has four emergency shelter apartments where homeless individuals can stay for up to 120 days.

From there, Quasula said permanent, supportive housing is the next move.

"Our mission is really helping the community's most vulnerable with solutions that change lives," Quasula said. "We're not satisfied with people just staying homeless, but it takes time to develop a relationship."

Word travels fast in the homeless community.

"They're their own culture, and they are willing to help anybody who is looking for help because they are homeless or they're on the street," Conchy said.

Based on need, like serious medical issues or when children are involved, a case manager will provide intake and potential placement in emergency shelter services.

"It's very temporary, but it's still a place where we can begin working with them," Quasula said.

Conchy said volunteers sometimes have to work with clients to extensively to build trust, which Quasula said could take a month, six months or even a year.

"A lot of them don't like to ask for help," she said. "It seems to be a commonality amongst them, and maybe the stigma and trust. They wait until they know what's going on."

Volunteers, some of whom were once homeless themselves, ask visitors questions about what they have and what they need.

"Sometimes you have to probe a little bit," Conchy said. "Not always, but it's building trust."

The Loft has, over time, become known in the homeless community as a kind of clubhouse and home away from home, at least during the four hours it is open each day.

"It's really kind of an awesome, magical thing going on when they're all here and they do get the word out," Conchy said.

Keeping the kitchen tidy, taking the trash out, breaking down boxes, and holding newcomers accountable for the standards set in The Loft are some of the ways visitors have taken ownership of the space.

"Some of the new people that come in may be kind of messy and they aren't really being very good stewards in their environment out there," Conchy said. "And there's a handful of other ones that are like, "Don't mess with this area, don't bring attention to us.'"

Conchy is trying to raise $2,000 by Christmas to fund emergency supplies.

"If somebody comes in wet and cold and I don't have a sleeping bag or tend and it's raining, if I don't have the funds to go out and get that, then I'm sending them out at 5 in the rain with nothing dry," Conchy said. "The combination of raising awareness that the financial donation is also just as important as the in-kind donations, because it breaks your heart to be working with someone who comes in sopping wet."

The community has contributed about $20,000 in support, Quasula said, which supplements smaller grants Catholic Charities has received.

"Even with us adding more services, which we are very grateful for, there still is not enough to go around," Quasula said. "You do have to prioritize and re-prioritize."

Without an address, it isn't possible to apply for and follow up on government services like social security or food stamps.

"This is their address," Conchy said.

"Many of these individuals are residents of the Verde Valley. When hard times hit, they found themselves in crisis."

--Carol Quasula