Escaping the Deadly Summer Streets (Dezzerai’s Story)

Homeless, pregnant, and alone, Dezzerai and her child were in danger--in more ways than you think.

The corner of 12th Avenue and Madison Street isn’t a place you want to be caught after dark. Last year, this ever-growing tent city in the heart of downtown was the site of 39 aggravated assaults, 13 robberies, 6 burglaries and 1 homicide.

Yet, it was this stretch of sidewalk that a pregnant, 20-year-old Dezzerai called home for two terrifying months – barely avoiding becoming a statistic herself.

“Living in that tent, it felt like a portion of hell. It was so horrible… so evil. I got into fights; people threatened to shoot me. Just the energy – the vibe – it was so off.”

But as dangerous as her neighborhood was, it was nothing compared to the threat that was headed her way – a deadly force of nature that kills hundreds on our streets every year.

Summer was coming.

In Arizona, our summer isn’t just hot, it’s deadly. In fact, just 15 minutes of exposure is enough to cause permanent damage to the brain, heart, and kidneys, and can even lead to death by heatstroke.* But Dezzerai hadn’t put herself in harm’s way by choice.

“There was a lot of hurt, a lot of pain in our house,” Dezzerai remembers. “My dad beat my mom. He was on drugs, but so was she and my grandma. I was adopted out to my great-aunt in Houston when I was 10 years old, but that was bad, too. I ended up running away to Arizona to get back with my mom when I was 17.”

Dezzerai didn’t realize at the time that she was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The reunion with her mother was anything but stable.

“At first, I was working and she was doing her own thing. But then we started getting high together. It was just a cycle of her using me, me using her, falling out and manipulation between the both of us. One day, I couldn’t go back to her house anymore.”

Dezzerai was 10 weeks pregnant when she hit the streets. She did what she could to survive. She battled Covid. But as the days wore on and the temperature started to rise inside her tent, she knew she was in trouble.

“I hadn’t prayed to Jesus in a very long time. Growing up and seeing how hypocritical my family was about it, Jesus offended me. I totally disconnected from God. That night, I was desperate. I called out to Jesus. The next day, an outreach team came!”

God intervened to save Dezzerai and her baby – just in time.

2020, the year Dezzerai found herself on the streets, was the hottest summer ever recorded in Phoenix history. By the end of October, the blazing temperatures claimed a record 323 lives in Maricopa County – the majority of them homeless. (www.maricopa.gov/CivicAlerts)
Thankfully, your love helped Dezzerai and her daughter escape the blistering streets.

“I was scared I was going to lose my baby. But I had a friend who told me about this place (the Changing Lives Center). She was here before and said it would be good for me. It seemed like something totally different, like somewhere I could find a whole new life.”

Dezzerai attributes her recovery and newfound hope and confidence to the support she’s received from the CLC counseling team.

You gave Dezzerai more than just shelter from the sun. Here she found recovery from her addiction, counseling for her past, parenting classes, childcare for her daughter and direction for her future.

“My counselors are amazing. They have been helping me break generational curses. My grandma lost my mom, my mom lost custody of me; it’s been this never-ending cycle of losing your kids to the system in my family. But I don’t have to conform to that. That ends with me.”

Most importantly, you helped her find the saving relationship that is transforming Dezzerai from the inside out.

"I feel like the only reason I woke up from that nightmare is because I called on Jesus. I just feel like he's speaking to me. If you told me two years ago that I'd be saying that today, I wouldn't have believed you. I'm totally brand new."

Today, Dezzerai and her baby are safe. She’s just three months from completing our Servant Leadership Program, she’s heading back to school to learn how to give back as a healthcare professional and is excited for the new life God has set before her.

But there are hundreds more like Dezzerai who are on the streets at this moment and in danger of becoming a statistic. Together, we can reach them in time, put a life-saving bottle of water in their hand, and invite them to the kind of new beginning only Christ can provide.

Thank you for the prayers and support that will give so many a second chance at life and eternity during the deadly summer months ahead!

*https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/faq.html
Now that she has the security and shelter of the Changing Lives Center, having lunch outdoors is a joy for Dezzerai and her daughter.

From Tragedy to Transformation [Debbie’s Story]

Depression couldn’t keep Debbie down — thanks to you

It’s easy to see someone on the street whose life is in shambles and think, “That’ll never be me.”

Just a few years ago, Debbie had every reason to believe it. She’s always been a hard worker. She had a good job and a house. She paid her bills and even had a boyfriend who, she was hoping, might soon become a husband.

But none of us are immune to tragedy.

For Debbie, and many others on the streets, one bad day is all it takes to turn a life upside-down.

It was 2012 when Debbie’s bad day hit her like a ton of bricks.

“My boyfriend passed away from cancer. Losing him put me into this deep depression that I couldn’t get out of. I stopped going to work. I couldn’t get out of bed; my whole world just fell apart.”

Debbie quickly found out that depression doesn’t care who you are, what you have in the bank or what your work ethic is. It’s capable of hollowing out a life just as quickly as any addiction.

Over the span of a few years, Debbie’s hold on life spiraled out of control.

She went from living in a house, to an apartment, and when the savings finally ran dry, to her car.

“I had never been evicted before. I always paid my bills. It was horrible. It was scary, too, because I knew how the homeless were treated. Living in my car, people would look at me like I was some kind of monster. I wasn’t a human being anymore.”

Debbie lived this nightmare for a little over a year and a half, driving her Nissan Sentra up and down Thunderbird Avenue looking for a safe place to sleep.

“I took care of my car, but sometimes you do stupid stuff. I let a friend drive it one day and he was really reckless with it. He tore the gearshift up and suddenly there was all this smoke coming from underneath. It was totaled. I didn’t have any place left to go.”

That’s when your love stepped in.

“I came here [Phoenix Rescue Mission’s Changing Lives Center] on the Hope Coach. Cliff [our former Hope Coach Coordinator] picked me up. I had no idea what this place was or what I was getting myself into, but I knew my life had to change. I told God, ‘Whatever you’re planning, Lord, I’m in.’” 

Over the course of a year, your compassion gave Debbie the tools she needed to break the grip of depression on her life.

In a matter of a few short years, Debbie found herself going from a comfortable home to living in her car. She knows firsthand how those experiencing homelessness are treated and wants to help others find the transformation that she found at Phoenix Rescue Mission.

“I got counseling that I would never have gotten before. The trauma egg took a huge burden off my shoulders.”

A trauma egg is a counseling exercise designed to draw out past traumatic experiences in a tangible way. A large egg shape is drawn on a poster-sized sheet. Then, those in recovery fill it from top to bottom with traumatic events from their past, both big and small. With the help of Ta’Mella Pierce, Debbie’s counselor, she was able to work through each event one at a time.

"It opened my eyes to what was holding me back: the co-dependency, the anger, the resentment, the depression, the people-pleasing, it showed me where all that came from when I did my egg. It gave me a road map for what I needed to work on."

Through the exercise, Debbie also discovered there was much more to her depression than the passing of her boyfriend.

I found I had a lot of repressed anger toward my family. My father was very abusive. My mom had been abused as a child and never stuck up for me. I stuffed things down for so long.”

“To help get it all out, Ta’Mella had me write resentment letters. I don’t feel any resentment for anyone anymore because I wrote everything I wanted to say down and gave it to God. I told Him, ‘I don’t want to carry these. I don’t need them anymore.’”

Today, Debbie’s a different person, thanks to you.

“Looking back now, I can see where Jesus has been with me through all the rough times. Even here, when I was going through one of my lowest points, He showed me He was right beside me. The counseling here helped me out of my depression. I feel so much stronger now and I’m never going to go back to my old lifestyle.”

In fact, Debbie’s made it her goal to help others find find hope and healing. She’s completed her Peer Support Certification and hopes to serve those who are experiencing homelessness with hope and guidance.

“I know how people on the street feel, I know how they’re treated. No one should be made to feel less than human. I want to be out there giving them the kind of positive experience that changed my life. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”

Debbie is off the streets, depression-free and she’s got you to thank for it.

“We are so blessed here by all the donors. I am thankful every day for what you’ve given us here. God wakes me up and helps me do better than I did the day before. It’s hard work, but this is the best program there is. It changed my life completely.”

With the caring help of her counselor, Ta'Mella Pierce, Debbie discovered the repressed anger that was at the root of her depression. Your support makes it possible for people like Debbie to find freedom from depression.

Clarissa received a priceless gift – a Father she can count on

A Gift Long Overdue

After three decades as an emotional hostage, Clarissa received a priceless gift – a Father she can count on

Clarissa had had enough. After three decades of putting up with the snide remarks, the jabs and emotional abuse; coming home to overhear an act of betrayal drove her over the edge. Enraged, she bolted toward the bedroom, a clear signal of what was going to happen next.

She was going for the gun. Clarissa was going to shoot her father.

Thankfully, God intervened. Even as they wrestled over the firearm, He gave Clarissa what can only be described as a moment of clarity and grace.

“I was so angry and I couldn’t control it,” says Clarissa. “But I found myself praying to God, ‘Don’t let me win this and shoot my father.’ I knew I was fixing to throw everything away.”

The moment passed. Her father wrestled away the gun and Clarissa ran. She hit the cold Memphis night air with nothing but the clothes on her back knowing she couldn’t return. With no money, no ID and no idea where to go, she reached out to God for direction. He gave her one word.

“Phoenix.”

After Clarissa’s mother passed away in 2017, she dropped everything – her job, the house she was ready to purchase and her friends – to leave Baltimore, MD to take care of her dad in Memphis, TN.

“The relationship I had with my father was always imbalanced. Dysfunctional. He’s been pulling his pistol on me since I was 7 or 8 years old. But he was alone and the way I was raised was to go home and see about your dad. And that’s what I did. I drove 2,000 miles with a U-Haul truck telling him we were going to fix him up. We were going to live as a family.”

But it wasn’t to be.

“Within two weeks that man started putting his pistol on me again. I didn’t know what to do. Then I came home one night and heard him talking on the phone to his niece asking her to pick him up and take him back with her to Mississippi. After everything I had left behind for him, everything I sacrificed, he was going to slip out the back on me?”

A few heated minutes later, wrestling over the gun, Clarissa was homeless and penniless with little idea what to do next – but pray.

“I told God, ‘I’m old, I’m tired and I ain’t got no run left in me. But if you think I’ve got more, you give me what I need and I’ll do it.’ I didn’t know what He was going to do, but I knew that I needed to find a Christian place where God could put things right.”

Thanks to friends like you, God had just the right place in mind.

“The Holy Spirit put in my mind, ‘Phoenix.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know nothing about Phoenix, I don’t know anyone in Phoenix. I don’t know about that, God.’ But I said, ‘Lord, if you say so, I’ll go.’ I heard Him tell me, ‘Phoenix Mission’ and when I Googled it, Phoenix Rescue Mission came up.”

With help from her cousin, she took a Greyhound bus to Phoenix with one goal in mind.

Clarissa shares her testimony and her hopes for the future at her graduation from our Women’s Recovery Program. After receiving her Peer Support Certification, it’s her desire to help others avoid or overcome the kinds of trials that she’s been through.

“I came here because I knew I needed to be changed. I wanted to stop being that foolish person that kept letting the same person destroy me time and time again. I’ve never let anyone treat me like my father has. Why did I always go back for more? What was I looking for? That was the question.”

Answers like those don’t come overnight. Transformation takes time – it takes wrestling with uncomfortable feelings, confronting your past and uncovering who you really are in the light of a holy and merciful God. You gave Clarissa the time and the space to do just that.

“I’ve been to a lot of programs – some a week, others six weeks – but this program here truly gives you something to work with. It’s individualized. But I had to get honest. Uncomfortably honest,” she remembers.

“No one had ever asked me why I act like I do, why I say what I say, why I feel like I feel,” she continued. “People don’t like people who tell the truth. Then they told me to stop trying to be like someone else, and just be who God created me to be.”

It was through that process that Clarissa discovered her answer.

“I thought I had left daddy and all that behind me in Memphis, but no. I was still craving his approval because I admire him so much. Ever since I was little, I wanted to be like him. Realizing that started opening my eyes.”

Discovering the truth meant that, for the first time in three decades, Clarissa could move past it. She was free. With her life no longer tied to her father’s approval, Clarissa started rebuilding.

She began working on her anger, learning techniques to take back control when things got hot. She learned how to diffuse confrontations, how to set boundaries, respect the boundaries of others, and more. Slowly but surely, Clarissa found the change she was looking for.

In July, she graduated from our women’s recovery program – and God put her transformation to the test.

“A few days after I graduated, my daddy started calling me. He said he was dying and wanted me to come out there and get him. I agreed. I brought him back to Phoenix and he got better. Then, not a month later, I came home and found him packing. He told me he was leaving to live with his niece.”

“This time, I didn’t lose control. I had the tools. I helped pack him up as fast as I could and told him not to come back. Not because he wasn’t welcome in my house, but because he wasn’t welcome to mess up my peace. Never again.”

With that chapter of her life finally behind her, Clarissa began a new one – helping others receive the gift of freedom – just like you gave her.
“I got my Peer Support Certification here and I’m working towards becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor. I want to help others so that they don’t have to go through what I had to go through.”

Clarissa’s story is another link in a chain of love and mercy that stretches back 2,000 years – to a baby in a manger – and continues on through your generosity and support this Christmas season. Thank you for extending the love of Christ to the men and women we serve.

This place here, I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to change. It ain’t gonna be easy. You’re going to have to fight for it. But if you stick with it, you’ll change.”

From Memphis, TN to Phoenix, AZ, God directed Clarissa’s path to the Phoenix Rescue Mission, where she found the friendship and support of staff like Detra Auzenne (left), Food Service Coordinator, and Coral Griswold (right), Case Manager.

Homeless Court provided a new freedom in Anna’s recovery from opioid addiction

Who the Son Sets Free

Homeless Court provided a new freedom in Anna’s recovery from opioid addiction

Law provides the guardrails that keep a society together. But there comes a point when law becomes so complex, when fines from old infractions and missed deadlines begin to stack and trigger new fines and deadlines, that those guardrails begin to act more like bars – giving people without means little means of escape.

“I see individuals coming in with 10-year-old unpaid parking tickets that turned into a suspension on their driver’s license."

Karen Sadler is a representative of the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County. “A suspension also means they aren’t able to register their vehicle, which quickly turns into an abandonment of vehicle fee because they can’t move it. And, of course, if they have warrants for those unpaid tickets, finding housing gets a lot tougher. These things can compound very quickly.”

It’s what happened to Anna. When she came to the Mission, her compounded fines totaled just under $2,400 – an insurmountable debt for someone with little more than a duffel bag to her name.

Addicted, unemployed, and in debt, Anna was trapped in more ways than one.

Unlike many of the men and women we serve, Anna didn’t come from a broken home. She wasn’t abused or overcome by peer pressure at a young age. Anna was a victim of Arizona’s opioid epidemic.

She suffered from Arteriovenous Malformation, a fusing of arteries and veins that, in Anna’s case, required a series of hand surgeries over the years. Ironically, the painkillers prescribed for surgery recovery would require a recovery of their own.

“At that time, if you had a pain doctor they’d give you whatever you want. Mine had a reputation. We found out later that he was known as ‘The Candy Man.’ And looking back, yeah, it was a disgusting amount of pain medication I was given every month.”

Despite the reckless amount of drugs that were prescribed, Anna honored the recommended dosage for years. Then, tragedy.

“My husband had an affair and left me and my daughter. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time and it was a little too much to take all at once. I caved. I caved hardcore.”

Anna turned to her medication for comfort. It’s a move that, in short order, cost her her home, her relationship with her family, her daughter… even her freedom.

“When my parents kicked me out, I sent my daughter to live with her father. I was bouncing from couch to couch for a few years, shoplifting to get by and pay for pills. Then I got arrested.”

It turned out that was the best thing that could have happened to Anna.

“I found out about Phoenix Rescue Mission through the Bridge Program [our inmate outreach program]. One of the girls I had buddied up with in jail was super religious. She talked me into going. I kinda went as a joke at first… but every week I kept going back ‘cause I found it more and more interesting.”

When Anna’s time in jail was up, she enrolled at the Mission’s Changing Lives Center for Women & Children to continue the recovery she began behind bars. Thanks to your support, what she’s experienced here has transformed her life.

She met Jesus Christ and his indescribable forgiveness and transforming love. She found her sobriety, thanks to months of counseling and peer support. She’s even salvaged broken relationships with her family thanks to God’s grace and the encouragement of staff.

“My parents literally feel like they have their daughter back – and I have my own daughter back!”

But despite finding freedom in so many areas, there was still something standing in the way of her new life. With fines and fees factored in, three old traffic tickets had increased over the years to just under $2,400.

“One was a speeding ticket,” Anna recalls. “The others were for driving with a suspended license.”

The Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court allows those with back fines to make resolution through time spent in recovery programs.

It’s not uncommon for fines and court fees in the range of thousands of dollars to stand between those we serve and their path back to self-sufficiency. For these men and women, a collaboration between Phoenix Rescue Mission and the Maricopa Courts system makes all the difference.

“Resolution through the Maricopa County Regional Homeless Court is a service we offer to anyone in discipleship or higher (about 5 months into our recovery program) to pay back fines that impede them from moving forward,” says Melody, Lead Case Manager at Phoenix Rescue Mission.

Karen Sadler, Maricopa County’s Homeless Court Coordinator, explains, “Instead of using traditional community restitution, like cleaning up a highway or something similar, they can apply the time spent working on their mental and behavioral health through counseling, housing and job search, going to interviews and more. It fosters the applicant’s path out of homelessness and benefits the community as a whole.”

For Anna, that was exciting news.

"We started applying at Homeless Court last January because, with COVID, we knew it would take a while. They added up the time I spent working on my recovery, and including the time in the Ministry Training program, I had 1,240 hours to apply towards my fines."

"I just got the call last Friday; it was enough to satisfy every single fine! That’s a huge load, gone. You have no idea!"

Today, Anna has been set free in more ways than one – and she knows it. She’s eager to give back for the amazing blessings your support has given her.

“I just really want to pay it forward,” says Anna, who is going back to school to become a case manager. “This place has done wonders for my world, and I want to help the people that come in after me.”

Without the partnership of friends like you and the amazing work of our case managers, none of this would be possible. Your support helps provide a true path off the streets, breaking the bonds of addiction, hopelessness, and even the financial burdens that serve as roadblocks – keeping so many on the fringe of society.

For Anna and countless others like her, thank you! Your support is proving yet again, “Who the Son sets free, is free indeed.” (John 8:36)

Meet the Staff: Cierra Peña, Lead Case Manager

When Cierra came to Phoenix Rescue Mission’s Changing Lives Center in 2012, she had been struggling with addiction since she was 13 years old. Through your support, we welcomed this mother of four as one of the first 20 women to experience all the hope and healing that our then brand-new women’s campus had to offer – and it changed everything for Cierra and her family.

“I had been through 45-day in-patient programs but nothing helped. I knew I needed a year-long program to change my life. And it did; I’m going on 9 years in March that I’ve been clean and it’s thanks to this place.

But Cierra wasn’t satisfied with finding sobriety, she wanted to help others find the same gift that she had been given. Just 90 days after enrolling in our recovery program, Cierra began serving other women as part of the intake team. When the Mission began creating the intake triage program we now call Rescue-Assess-Place (RAP), Cierra was able to lend her experience to help build the program we now use today.

For the past 9 years, hundreds of women looking for hope have been surprised to find Cierra, a woman with genuine concern for their wellbeing, waiting to meet them in RAP.

Those who have enrolled in recovery have found a friend ready to advocate for them in court, help them set doctor appointments, obtain IDs and birth certificates, get fines reduced or eliminated – knocking down each and every barrier that stands between them and success.

As a result of her hard work and extensive experience receiving and providing assistance, lives have been forever transformed and, she’s recently been promoted to Lead Case Manager. There couldn’t be a better fit for the position!

“A lot of these women come in with no hope, many with a Department of Child Safety case weighing heavy on their hearts,” says Cierra.

“At one point in my life, I was there. I thought I couldn’t do any better. I love to share my story and help them realize that there is hope. Seeing them go from dark to light brings me so much joy!”

Cierra is another shining example of what God’s grace and your support can do in a life – and by extension, the lives of hundreds of others.