In Tucson, a home built by the homeless

A once-neon sign faded by the Arizona sun said, ``PUEBLO COURT,'' but the derelict motel had been boarded up for years when Nancy Bissell and her partner, Gordon Packard, stepped out on a limb. They intended to buy the building and bring in a crew of homeless men to fix it up. They hoped to prove to the Tucson community that, with help, street people can become reemployable. ``And we did! We proved it!'' Ms. Bissell exults. ``Most of them have gone on to permanent jobs, and they keep in touch.''

For two years Bissell had managed St. Martin's Center, a church-sponsored soup kitchen for Tucson's homeless. She and Mr. Packard, both social activists, had seen firsthand that it's virtually impossible to get off the streets without assistance. Basic needs are a place to wash and shave, clean clothing, an address and telephone number. In addition, jobless persons may need to be coached on how to throw off their defeated air and show up early for appointments.

After their experience at the soup kitchen, she and Packard wanted to try a different kind of contribution to the poor. They had not quite envisioned such a large project, or such a shaky limb, however. The building required all new plumbing and wiring, new floors and ceilings, re-roofing and dry-walling. They scraped up cash for the renovation by using their own money, and when that wasn't enough, by begging and borrowing.

With six workers hired from the center and Packard as foreman, they began the repair. Bissell did the odd jobs - the running around, the buying, ordering, check-writing and, yes, cooking. Occasionally she had help with the latter from men who couldn't work in the blazing sun.

``We offered minimum wage,'' Bissell explains. ``The men had a roof over their heads, and we provided meals. At first it was very primitive, but as the rehab progressed, the quarters got better and better.''

The crew held frequent meetings to analyze progress. Packard began to see that some of the men were unemployed because they worked too slow. They became involved with doing a job well and forgot that speed was essential, too, if a contractor was to come out ahead. This had to be pointed out tactfully.

They had barely finished one unit when a social worker stopped by. She said, ``Gee, with so many people about, this looks like a good place to put someone I'm trying to find a home for. He's mentally disabled.'' And they acquired their first tenant.

As the building became renewed, the men discovered that they, too, had worth, that Bissell and Packard really cared what they thought about a wall texture or a method of glazing windows.

``We knew very little about building,'' she admits with a smile. ``Gordon had some experience, but we really needed the men's help.''

The men began to sense that they had the power to control their own lives and make decisions. Bissell felt they had become disconnected from their better selves. Once the reconnection was made, they were able to go out and get regular jobs again. Two men left because they weren't getting paid enough. They felt they were worth more. Delighted with that attitude, Bissell and Packard returned to the center and hired others.

``One of the things we worried about,'' Bissell remembers, ``was that our environment was too cozy. The men we chose to work for us might crash on reentry to the real world. But it didn't happen. They built up a sense of worth and resilience, and they could deal with bosses who yell at you, and unfairness. Which is the way the world is.''

Not all the men they hired were reclaimable. One worker stole 12 checks from the back of the project's checkbook and cashed them in a local bar. The theft was undiscovered until checks for building materials began bouncing. Then they had to deal with his arrest. ``The effect on the other men was interesting,'' Bissell says. ``They felt personally ripped off and sad. It became a kind of turning point. They were feeling loyalty to something outside themselves. We gained in terms of human development. And eventually the bank reimbursed us.''

Cody, who became one of the project's mainstays, says, ``I don't know where I'd be. I'd been on the streets four months, sleeping in the tall weeds, after having my own business, and I was still in shock.'' He now manages a crew that repairs historic houses.

Randy has settled down, with a job at a service station and a girlfriend. He figures he was only temporarily homeless, just hitch-hiking around the country. Bissell and Packard believe, however, that the longer a person is on the streets, the harder it is to escape them.

Almost before anyone realized, Pueblo Court became known as a good place to house people designated as chronically mentally ill, a group that also tends to wind up homeless.

Bissell has photographs she is proud to show - of the progress of the work, the men, the present tenants. One picture shows a young man with a cat.``He carries the cat everywhere.'' Bissell smiles. ``He's a nice young man. He's just a misfit out in the world. But in our world he feels he has a role to play, and he has.''

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