Helping homeless seniors is Paul Browning’s passion.
Having almost become homeless himself 25 years ago, the Ahwatukee man for the last 10 years, working at the nonprofit Justa Center a downtown Phoenix ministry connected to the United Methodist Church that assists homeless people over age 55.
Now the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church has honored Browning, a software consultant and member of Desert Foothills United Methodist Church in Ahwatukee, for his service.
Each year, the bishop from the Desert Southwest Conference selects two individuals for the Bishop’s Award, which recognizes people who have demonstrated a passion for serving others and exemplify God's work. Browning was one of the individuals selected.
“I’m not sure why,” Browning said. “It was a total, a complete surprise to me. I have no idea why I got it.”
Founded in 2006, Justa Center is the only day resource center in the United States for homeless seniors.
Up to 60 percent are veterans with about 40 percent being women. In addition to finding housing, other areas the center helps individuals with include VA and DES benefits, Social Security, employment, counseling and spiritual support.
Justin, a father for four with seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, is treasurer of the ministry.
“The stuff that I do to help others and be with others and work with them is not special,” he said.
“I just have felt like it’s what everyone is called to do: to help those that are poor, those that are marginalized, those that are discriminated against, those that need help…It’s humbling to get singled out for that. But at the same time, I don’t do anything we shouldn’t all be doing.”
He said he realized his calling when he first visited Justa Center.
“When I walked in about 10 years ago into the building and I started to meet and I started to talk to and visit with the people who were there, I just immediately knew this is where I belonged,” said Browning. “This is where I felt God wanted me to serve, with these people.”
He said it has been a blessing to visit with people, listening to their stories.
“These people are just like you and me,” said Browning. “There’s nothing different about them. They might have made some different choices than you or me.”
Browning spent time living on the streets in Phoenix so he could get a firsthand account of the day-to-day struggles homeless people face.
He learned about homelessness, though, when he was younger.
At 18, Browning got a summer job while in college at Yellowstone National Park. He only worked there a short time when he and a buddy decided to take off and explore the country.
They ended up riding freight trains in box cars around the country for the rest of the summer. As a result, Browning said they got acquainted “with the hobo community. We’d sit and visit with them.”
Browning almost experienced homelessness a second time after he went back to school to get an advanced degree in accounting.
His background was in sales, something he claims he was horrible at. He had a tough time making it, trying to support his wife and kids.
One time, Browning recalled, the gas was turned off in their home and they had to heat water in a microwave.
During this time, Browning observed how he was treated differently.
“One of the things we noticed was that people knew we were really struggling,” Browning said. “People knew that we didn’t have a lot of money and we were treated differently. We were poor.”
“It was an attitude and the way people looked at us, we noticed it and it stuck with us.”
One of the many things he likes about Justa Center is its approach to helping homeless seniors.
“The whole purpose of this is to give these people who are marginalized, these people who have been beaten down, labeled, called bums, give them a sense of dignity,” said Browning.
“We all deserve a sense of dignity. So one of the things we try to do at Justa Center is to realize these people are people just like you or me. Any of us are one paycheck away from being where they are.”
Browning describes Justa Center as a safe place for people to come every day. “We see around 150-170 people line up outside our building that comes in every day.”
They go in and have a cup of coffee, a donut and read newspapers. Seniors can even take a shower and bring in their clothes to have volunteers wash.
“When we’re working with a person, we go through what’s called an intake,” explained Browning. “We don’t ask, ‘How did you get here?’ That’s not important to us. What’s important to us is ‘How can we help you move forward.’”
Browning admits there are some people they just can’t help. “If they don’t want to move forward, if they don't want to change the situation they’re in, we recognize that and we’ll sever the relationship.”
When seniors visit Justa Center, no questions are asked about how they ended up on the streets.
“We’ll listen to your story if you want to tell us but we don’t ask you to hear your story,” explained Browning. “If you want to tell us, we’ll love to listen to what’s going on in your life. But we want to take you where you are right now and move forward the best we can if you’ll work with us.”
“I don’t care what your faith tradition is, we’re all in this together.”