Hope & Honor: Outreach workers provide compassion in a cold world
PRESCOTT - The hour is early. The homeless are lining up for breakfast at The Salvation Army.
Dawn-Marie Hayden arrives with a big smile and hugs for all she encounters, an unexpected gesture to some who have not taken a shower in days or whose beards may smell of stale beer.
The Catholic Charities veteran outreach worker doesn't care. To Hayden, a social worker for more than 30 years, this group of men and women - some veterans, some not - need hugs more than anyone else.
"It is amazing how far simple human kindness, respect and dignity can go, when I provide a simple hug and smile; it truly is the best part of my day, so much they have nicknamed me, 'Hugs,' " Hayden said.
Catholic Charities is one of two agencies in town awarded grants to provide supportive services to veteran families. Hayden joined her agency three months ago after three years as a case manager for another veteran service organization.
Through the program, Hayden seeks out veterans who need housing but due to mental illness, substance abuse, family strife or lack of employment have found permanent shelter beyond their reach.
Before she broaches housing options, though, Hayden said she needs to build a rapport. Like other outreach workers, Hayden begins with immediate needs: warm blankets, socks, bottled water, maybe a ride to the VA hospital or help applying for financial assistance.
On this January morning, Hayden connects with a veteran, Nick, she has arranged to help with the donation of a new wheelchair.
"It's always nice to see her. She's always positive," said one man, Jerry, who is not a veteran but was directed by Hayden to other local agencies that might help him move beyond emergency shelter. "I don't know who to ask."
Another just-homeless man, Byran Freidenberger, applauded Hayden and others like her who reach out to those who fear public reprisal and so "stay out of sight."
"One of these days when I get ahead I'll give back to these agencies for what they've given to me," said Freidenberger, accompanied by his mixed breed dog, Maggie May.
From the shelter, Hayden heads out beyond the city's business district. At one stop, she hikes down a steep, leaf-strewn embankment, traversing overgrown shrubs and tree stumps to reach almost invisible camp sites, some covered with tarps and others tucked between boulders.
The sites are now vacant, so Hayden picks up surrounding trash and leaves behind reusable grocery sacks filled with water bottles and granola bars.
"This is the most rewarding job," Hayden said. "If I can help one person at a time, what a blessing."
Helping people navigate their situation ...
On a bitter cold January night, local VA social worker Ryan Louis stops in at the Operation Deep Freeze emergency shelter held at The Salvation Army just before the doors open for the night.
Louis' job with the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System is to extend services to the most vulnerable veterans who are "the most difficult to serve."
Louis understands the VA is an easy target for disgruntled homeless veterans who blame the government for their plight, particularly its inability to obtain permanent housing vouchers.
Since 2008, NAVACHS has been awarded 70 vouchers for the Prescott area, all of them now in use. Efforts to garner more in the future have not yet been successful.
HUD this year provided NAVACHS with 35 additional vouchers but they are restricted to veterans who live on tribal land.
Limited affordable housing in the region also poses obstacles, particularly for those not eligible for mental health or substance abuse treatment programs.
So what can he do? Louis said he starts with "concrete issues."
One day last spring a veteran at The Salvation Army approached him about new shoes and a driver's license.
"I said, let's do something about that today," he said.
He then gained the veteran's trust such that he was willing to enroll in the VA's domiciliary program to treat his drug addiction. After that program, Louis worked with him to find an affordable apartment.
In the last six weeks, Louis has been extending invitations to veterans to take advantage of the VA's new drop-in center located in the outreach building behind the domiciliary on the main campus off Highway 89.
Veterans can come and shower, do their laundry, and have access to computers and a microwave.
Social workers are available, but veterans don't have to talk to anybody unless they want to, he assured.
Louis said he sees his role as something of a tightrope walker, tiptoeing along a fine line between respecting homeless veterans' wishes and steering them toward a more stable existence.
"I have met people who have chosen a life on the road ... but then it gets too cold or their car breaks down and a life that seemed manageable now becomes unmanageable," Louis said. "We try to help people navigate their situation."
Dedicated, with a heart of gold
In his usual dress of T-shirt and slacks, a not-too-trim gray beard and pony tail, Daniel Mattson blends right in with the homeless men and women seeking shelter from the cold at Operation Deep Freeze, an emergency shelter program held at The Salvation Army on South Montezuma Street.
Mattson, 54, is not homeless. He is a fighter for the rights of the homeless and spends his days reaching out to the homeless community whether they need a ride to a doctor's appointment, assistance filling out an application for subsidized housing, money to fill a prescription or road service to replace a tire on the van that is now their shelter.
A former drug addict and devout Christian, Mattson embraces the New Testament Gospel scripture that calls on Jesus' followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and befriend the stranger. He lives the doctrine that suggests that when one reaches out to the lost, the lonely or forgotten, he has done the same for God.
"I work for God," said Mattson, a retired mechanic who is volunteer with the Granite Creek Hunger Ministries, a board member for Prescott Area Leadership and a graduate of the West Yavapai Guidance Clinic's Mental Health First Aid course. "To a lot of people that might sound weird, but it's the truth."
"He is absolutely dedicated," declared Fritzi Mevis, executive director of People Who Care. "He's always there when you need him. He's a huge community advocate for the homeless ... He has a heart of gold."
Mattson blushes at the accolades. He simply wants to make life easier for those who struggle.
"Most of the homeless are just looking to be left alone," Mattson said. "They deserve to be treated with a little respect, and that goes a long way."
For certain, Mattson said, the chronic homeless population in this area have significant hurdles to overcome: addiction, mental illness, even criminal convictions that make renting an apartment or employment a near impossibility. He knows there are a lot of good people trying to do the right thing to help them overcome some of the obstacles, but there is still a way to go, particularly when it comes to providing adequate affordable housing opportunities.
Mattson said he sees his role as "filling in the gaps" and being available for crises that other agencies do not address on a regular basis. Many local agency leaders, and some of the homeless, have his cell number on speed dial.
"If I need to get someone help, I can bring together resources," said Mattson who has the personal cells of most of the major non-profit providers in town. "I can often get things done that someone off the street doesn't have connections to get done."
All know he is on call 24/7.
"Most of the homeless are just decent people who are down on their luck," Mattson said. "In today's job market, for almost every job there are 100 applicants or more. You don't have to have done a lot of wrong to not be selected. So getting back on your feet is extremely difficult.
"Being homeless is very hard work."
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