Though the Desert Foothills Methodist Church Missions & Outreach Committee heeds the call to aid people throughout the world, it also believes in helping locally.
“Missions is the heart of our Christian family,” its webpage reads and lately that heart has been focused on the needs of the Valley’s homeless seniors.
“I tell people the words ‘homeless’ and ‘seniors’ shouldn’t even be sitting next to each other,” said Jane Peterson, who with her husband Eric are committee members.
They are among church members currently involved with Justa Center, a downtown Phoenix nonprofit that assists homeless persons 55 and over.
The couple, both in their mid-70s, have been Desert Foothills UMC members for 23 years and have served on the Missions & Outreach Committee since 2000.
Jane chaired the group for five years and it is now chaired by Shirley Coomer.
“Our committee currently has seven members, but the entire church steps up to participate in the ministries we select,” said Jane
She recites a plethora of projects the Missions & Outreach Committee is involved in: Project Veterans Pride/The James Walton Home; Flight 33 for Guatemala; various area women’s and men’s shelters and pregnancy centers; providing Christmas gifts for more than 200 children in Agua Prieta, Mexico and gifts for the 100 moms on Mother’s Day who attend a UMC church there; and the Kiwanis Club of Ahwatukee’s Community Baby Shower for unwed young mothers.
The Ahwatukee church is also involved with Family Promise of Greater Phoenix, which provides hospitality, meals and shelter to homeless families. They are currently Family Promise at the church through Oct. 6.
But since Rudy Soliz, extended care manager for the downtown Phoenix Justa Center came to speak to the Mission Committee two months ago and told of the growing number of homeless seniors coming through their doors, Jane and Eric Peterson knew they wanted to do more to help.
“We looked at each other and agreed ‘There but for the grace of God…’” she said. “We sincerely felt for these seniors who had no homes of their own.”
The couple rolled up their sleeves and went to work, actively soliciting needed furniture, especially beds, for seniors whom Justa Center had vetted and found capable of financially affording their own apartments with a bit of help.
Jane took to social media and found Ahwatukee ready to assist the homeless seniors in need.
“Justa Center is amazing and that’s why we help and that’s why I posted the need for beds,” said Jane, who taught math throughout the world as her husband served 25 years as an Air Force officer. “The Ahwatukee community has been generous and they’re still stepping up.”
The septuagenarians are hands-on volunteers who don their sturdy walking shoes and work clothes and brave the heat to help move donated furniture.
“My husband and I and a couple of friends and Rudy get the beds from the donors and get them to the apartments where seniors are waiting for beds, as well as bed linens, chairs, dishes, coffee pots, toasters, and tables - to have their meals and more,” said Jane. “Justa finds those things, although sometimes they don’t have enough and letting the Ahwatukee folks know about this organization and the work they do, day after day, will certainly help.”
When Jane speaks about the work Justa Center has done since its establishment in 2006, she recites the statistics that so transformed the couple into loyal and active volunteers.
“A lot of seniors are being priced out of their homes,” she said. “There has been an increase of homeless women with 30 percent of them over age 70 and at least two of them over 80.”
Justa Center exclusively serves seniors 55 and older and opens every day at 7 a.m., providing food, shower facilities and laundry service along with other assistance.
Peterson said an average of 100 mid-day meals are served daily and 40 loads of laundry are done weekly at the 1001 W. Jefferson St. facility.
“While homelessness is a national issue, Phoenix has one of the highest homeless populations in the country,” said Peterson. “Since Justa Center opened in 2006, they’ve helped 5,761 seniors.”
“It’s astounding how many seniors are facing homelessness and many through no other reason than they’re being priced out of their apartments,” she said.
One 70-year-old woman said she fears she could join the homeless ranks after her apartment management notified her they’re renovating and if she stays, her rent would nearly double.
Justa Center also helps homeless seniors obtain proper state identification cards and provides a mailing address so they can get Social Security and other benefits.
Computers are available to seniors, as are weekly spiritual counseling, Sunday ecumenical services and monthly movies with positive and spirit-renewing messages.
A nurse’s clinic is also onsite aiding homeless seniors.
“Justa Center has three goals for each senior: respect, dignity and autonomy,” said Jane.
Justa Center also helps seniors locate affordable housing.
“In 2018 they placed 288 seniors into their own homes,” Jane said. “And of those who get into housing, at least 90 percent stay at least a year and in four years of tracking, 70 percent have stayed four years.”
The Petersons said besides their efforts to find furniture donations, they actively encourage friends and neighbors to take advantage of the Arizona Tax Credit.
Donations of money can be made on JustaCenter.org or via PayPal. AmazonSmile offers 0.5 percent of the price of eligible purchases to the charitable organization, also.
For the Petersons, supporting their fellow senior citizens who find themselves homeless is dear to their hearts, and their faith.
“We pray together, ‘Please help us be the hands and feet of Jesus,’” she said.