Near the beginning of each year, the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) sponsors a Point in Time event, with scores of volunteers taking to the streets to count “unsheltered” homeless people.
Results of the Jan. 27 count show Maricopa County’s homeless population increased significantly over the last year, from 3,188 to 3,767. More than two-thirds of the homeless were counted in Phoenix, with a relatively small number counted in the West Valley.
Since 2017, Avondale’s homeless population has nearly doubled, from 27 to 56. Buckeye’s homeless population increased from 22 to 41, while Goodyear’s stayed nearly the same, with 22 homeless people counted the last two years, 23 this year. No homeless people were found in Litchfield Park, five in Tolleson.
Those are the numbers.
Eddie Thompson was one of them.
It’s no fun to be homeless, he advised.
“I was laying out there in the dirt. In the heat in Goodyear, Arizona,” he reflected from a cool, comfortable apartment.
A former offender who spent more than a dozen years in prison, he drifted to Goodyear and found a ragtag community sleeping in a storm retention field near Interstate 10.
“I was just roaming around. I found out the Goodyear Police Department doesn’t hassle the homeless too much,” he said. “Other cities, they hassle you, tell you to move on. They don’t want you here.”
He blames no one but himself for being homeless. After getting out of prison, he entered one housing program after another—but kept getting kicked out.
The reason? “Doing drugs and alcohol, mainly drugs. ... I would test dirty, or just be too high or too hungover to go to work.
“Everybody has their story. Some people can deal with things. I run,” he said
Nearing 60, he got tired of sleeping on the ground—and being treated like dirt.
“When you’re homeless, people don’t treat you normally,” Thompson said. “They look at you funny. They kind of look down on you.”
Rich Heitz was one of the exceptions.
A case manager with the Phoenix Rescue Mission, which also serves the West Valley, Heitz would visit with Thompson a few times a week, finding him having his morning coffee in front of a Circle K.
At first, Thompson didn’t have much interest in entering a housing program. Then, he watched as Heitz helped a few of his peers get off the street.
“He saw his friends get housed, and finally he said, ‘All right, Rich, I’m ready,’” Heitz said.
Heitz helped Thompson get various forms of identification and a referral that led to a housing voucher.
Then, he had to look at vacant apartments and submit applications. With “a couple burglaries and an arson” on his record, landlords weren’t exactly lining up to give Thompson a chance.
“The day Eddie got his apartment was the day Eddie was giving up,” Heitz recalled with a chuckle. “He was mad at the world; he was giving up on everyone.
“An hour later, he got the call that he could come down and sign a lease, get his keys. It was God’s timing.”
It has only been a few months, but Thompson is planning on staying at his West Phoenix apartment—and staying off the street.
“It’s great. Better than laying in the dirt,” he said with a cackle.
“Do I miss being out there? No. I been out there a few times, had some friends in Goodyear, some good people.”
With support from community programs, his main job now is to stay off drugs.
“The good news is, today I’m sober,” Thompson said. “I haven’t done any illegal drugs. If I wanted to, it’s all over here. It doesn’t even interest me anymore.”
He has had many chances in the past - and blown them all.
This time it feels different, Thompson said.
“The only obligation I got is I guess to myself, whether I want to stay in this nice bed and air conditioning,” he reflected from an apartment that many would call spartan but feels like a five-star hotel to someone who had a dirt pillow for years.
“Right now, I guess it’s up to me. I am going to be starting classes at Southwest Behavioral, sit down with a psychologist, figure out how to deal with problems in the past so I won’t be out on the streets,” he said.
He also has a “navigator” with Community Bridges who helps him stay connected.
The string of community services started with Phoenix Rescue Mission. The hard part for case managers like Heitz is finding the right timing.
“In the past, I didn’t want it,” Thompson admitted. “Now, I do want it. It’s something I don’t take lightly.
“I threw away my life once. Here I am given a second opportunity to live my life normally.”
In January 2021, Thompson plans to be one less unsheltered head for the Point in Time volunteers to count.
Thankful for the programs that helped him, it’s good to have a home, he says—and to be alive.
“If I was still using,” Thompson said, “I don’t think I’d be sitting here having this conversion with you.”