When it first opened on a December day in 2006, the Justa Center in downtown Phoenix had only 13 visitors, and the center’s director Scott Ritchey asked those people what they needed most.
The consensus was that the Justa Center should offer simple things: a cup of coffee, a shower and a chance to read the newspaper.
Simple things like those would give the center’s visitors, who are all homeless seniors, a small piece of familiarity.
Now, the center sees about 125 seniors a day, Ritchey said.
“We saw that no one really knew how to deal with homeless seniors,” Ritchey said, explaining that his goal and that of the other founders was to bring some normalcy to the abnormal world of homelessness.
Seniors make up the fastest-growing number of homeless, Ritchey said.
Ritchey points out that the center, which exists solely on donations and with no government funding, is not an overnight shelter, nor is it a detoxification center for addictions, but it is instead a resource center.
The center offers, in addition to the comfort of a shower and a cup of coffee, internet access, warm meals, a library, an on-staff nurse and lockers.
But for new roommates Michael McKee and Hector Robles, the Justa Center is much more than the services it offers.
“This place is a godsend,” Robles said. “Miracles do happen here.”
Both McKee and Robles now work at the center, giving back to the community that helped them escape homelessness.
The Justa Center also has a veteran’s coordinator on staff to help the retired military homeless men and women who visit the center; their numbers make up about 40 percent of those the center assists.
The only rule of the Justa Center, which some of the visitors jokingly call the Justa country club where they are members, has only one rule: no drama.
“They were all real appreciative of that, there’s a lot of drama in their lives,” Ritchey said.
Drama can include a variety of things, although the most common is the use of drugs or alcohol, which Ritchey said can lead to a loss of membership.
“When you stop working, I stop working,” Ritchey said, explaining that for the centers resources to be able to help, the homeless visitors need to be fully participating in their lives.
“There’s a stereotype out there that older adults have chosen this lifestyle,” Ritchey said, but that assumption doesn’t hold true.
The real reasons for homelessness that Ritchey has seen in the last five years can be broken down into several categories: mental or physical disabilities, having nowhere to go after a prison stint, bad luck, substance abuse or a developmental disability.
The center staff works with the Department of Economic Security, the Veteran’s Administration and others, trying to help by first gathering all of a person’s important documents together, such as their birth certificate and Social Security card, then helping them find a revenue source, such as employment, and finally, helping them to find a home in independent living, an assisted living community, hospice care, or by reuniting them with family.
The Justa Center, on average, helps one person out of homelessness each day.
“They made it happen here; they got me a place to stay,” said McKee, who was homeless just over a month ago. “It’s a great thing. This is what I was looking for.”
McKee said he is now taking the first steps back into society, along with his roommate Robles.
“It gave me the miracle of life again,” McKee said.
Robles said he was coming to the Justa Center for about a year, and even volunteered to help out around the center before he recently started work there.
“The things you get done here make you feel better about yourself,” Robles said.
Robles lost his job, then his apartment, and then his car before slipping into homelessness.
“It makes you realize it’s all just material stuff, it can be replaced,” Robles said.
Both McKee and Robles said they try to pay it forward by helping at the center and helping each other, and Robles said he sees the people who take advantage of the centers resources are more likely to move on.
For Robles, one valuable resource was the computer access and although he said he’s still not a computer whiz, he learned skills from staff members that he could use at a future job.
“Without this place, it’d be hard,” Robles said. “They really care, that’s my opinion. They’re genuine about what they’re doing. They do want to see people back on their feet.”
McKee said he doesn’t know what the future holds, but he plans to look for a better job, possibly in truck driving, and hopes to find a home for him and his mother.
“It’s kind of hard to plan it, you never know what might happen,” McKee said. “I take it one day at a time, until my dream comes true, but I don’t know what that is.”
To learn about the Justa Center or to make a donation, visit www.justacenter.org.