By Mayor Jonathan Rothschild
I was happy to welcome U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to Tucson earlier this year for our annual Point In Time Count, also known as the Street Count.
The Street Count helps communities determine service needs by interviewing their homeless population. That information is then forwarded to our federal partners, who use it to allocate resources. At the Street Count, volunteers and staff from government and social service agencies canvass—in Tucson’s case, the surrounding desert—as well as underpasses, culverts, shelters, soup kitchens, and other areas where homeless folks are known to gather.
Not every mayor meets a member of the president’s cabinet wearing blue jeans and hiking boots, but then, homeless camps in the desert are a far cry from Capitol Hill. Secretary Perez arrived at our meeting place ready to work. After talking with some of the other canvassers, we headed out to a camp about 20 minutes away, on the southeast side of Tucson.
On the ride there, I discovered that Secretary Perez was already familiar with Tucson from his work as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. He also knew a great deal about homelessness—how people find themselves in this situation, and how difficult it can be to serve this population, especially those with substance abuse or mental health issues.
We took with us Cliff Wade, from Old Pueblo Community Services. Cliff is a veteran, a navigator, and formerly homeless himself. For Secretary Perez and I, the Street Count is a one-day event. For Cliff, every day is spent seeking out homeless folks, building relationships and gaining trust, so he can connect them with the services they need. We need more people like Cliff. Secretary Perez obviously thought so too, and I was happy to see Cliff receive some well-deserved recognition for his work – from the Secretary of Labor, no less.
At the camp, we separated, and each of us interviewed several homeless folks – generally men in their 50s, who looked much older than they were. They got by doing odd jobs or selling newspapers, but nothing that would allow them to pay for a place to live. One I spoke with had worked as an electrician, but he’d been out of work for so long that his skills were no longer up to date. Everyone had his own unique story, but abuse, addiction, diminished mental capacity, or the stigma of a criminal conviction, were recurrent themes throughout.
I’m always impressed by the candor of the people we talk to, who reveal details about their lives to people they don’t know. And I’m impressed by the commitment of the volunteers, who meet before daybreak to head out to various locations equipped with coffee, doughnuts, survey forms and pens.
After the camp, we drove to Primavera, a local nonprofit that offers shelter, housing, and support services to the homeless. We met with CEO Peggy Hutchison and COO Beth Carey and discussed the programs they were able to offer—as well as the fact that they did not have the resources to meet the demand for services.
At Primavera, we interviewed several homeless youth. Two boys, maybe 17 and 14, brothers, had slept on the street the past three or four nights because they had no place to go, having been kicked out of their home. The younger brother was in high school and still going to class. The older brother was looking for work. The most important thing, to them, was to stay together. They looked like your average teenagers—could have been anyone’s kids. It’s not always obvious when someone is homeless.
While in Tucson, Secretary Perez also visited Pima County’s Sullivan Jackson Employment Center, which provides job training to the homeless and unemployed, and we both toured Pima Community College’s Aviation Technology Center, which prepares students to work as aircraft and avionics mechanics and technicians.
Secretary Perez had a busy day in Tucson. I don’t know what destination he was off to next, but his visit here was greatly appreciated.