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Starting Point

Lives converge at Church of the Street


It's snowbird season in Phoenix. With 300 sun-filled days a year, panoramic canyons and high mountain deserts, Arizona is the second fastest growing state. It is a natural magnet for snowbirds fleeing frigid temperatures. Two hundred and fifty-thousand visitors swell the metro population of 2.3 million the first quarter of every year. According to the local visitors' bureau, the typical visitor to the area is 42 years old, earns $60,800 a year and spends 4.5 days in the valley. Snowbirds may spend 4.5 months.

By these standards, Meryl Dawson and Crushing Rock are not typical visitors, but they are real snowbirds of the poorest sort who find their way to warmer climes during these biting months. In Phoenix, they come to one of several shelters and soup kitchens, like Andre House, sponsored by the Holy Cross Fathers and staffed by volunteers like Dave Devine.

Devine, 23, from Philadelphia, has taken leave of his teaching career for a year's ministry at Andre House, a house of hospitality in the Catholic Worker tradition that serves the multiple needs of the homeless and poor of central Phoenix.

"While there is a large base of regulars among the guests who pass through the Andre House dining rooms each evening, there is also a fluid number of transient guests, many of them snowbird arrivals who come into town by bus or having hitched a ride," Devine says. "We serve 600 to 900 persons on an average day in winter."

Twenty-six-year old Meryl and her infant son, Abe, are staying at a shelter a few blocks away after arriving in Phoenix a week ago from Wyoming. Between the hearty evening meal at Andre House and the breakfast and lunch provided by nearby St. Vincent de Paul mission, they are able to manage until Meryl can get her bearings and use the St. Joseph Job Placement services at Andre House. A volunteer tucks a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and three cartons of milk into the baby stroller while Meryl feeds Abe freshly cooked carrots.

Crushing Rock is a snowbird of a different feather. Like many other Native Americans, he migrates to Phoenix each winter from Flagstaff, Ariz., to escape the colder clime. The trip down Highway 17 brings some respite, but the problems of poverty make his sojourn in the Valley of the Sun difficult, to say the least.

Then there are the physically and mentally challenged individuals, those at the lowest end of the economic scale, who have no fixed residence waiting for them save shelters that are filled to capacity. Often they haven't the ability to secure and hold a steady job, and the Supplemental Security Income check they receive each month isn't enough to rent an apartment and pay utilities, even short-term.

Another guest of Andre House, Bayonne, says that because he is African-American he has met with rejection from landlords in the central city area where he'd like to settle. He says they suspect him of doing and selling drugs. He is employed as a day laborer and writes sci-fi short stories for publication.

Devine lifts the masking-taped plastic sheets from large sections of the walls in one of the Andre House dining rooms. Several homeless artists are painting a collaborative mural. While the craggy rocks and perilous canyons of the mural are typical Southwest scenery, they also offer commentary on the rugged terrain that is the lot of the poor here. A lone coyote guards the painted mountaintops.

Devine is pleased with the progress of the work. Meryl Dawson wipes Abe's hands and stands back to admire the mural. Her red satin jacket has lost its original sheen, but the logo on the back is clear and readable. It says, Church of the Street.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997