Leaders of area homeless coalition now find themselves homeless

Laurie and Wing, the head of the Sedona Area Homeless Alliance, at their campsite after work Wednesday morning talk about their experience of finding themselves homeless. (VVN/Vyto Starinskas)

Laurie and Wing, the head of the Sedona Area Homeless Alliance, at their campsite after work Wednesday morning talk about their experience of finding themselves homeless. (VVN/Vyto Starinskas)

COTTONWOOD - For the first time in their lives, Wing and Laurie -- they keep it simple, no last names -- the leaders of the Sedona Area Homeless Alliance, find themselves homeless.

They want the community to know that they doing fine and are living much better than many of the other 400 homeless people in the Verde Valley.

And they continue to run their Sedona Area Homeless Alliance out of their car and by cellphone.

Last winter, the Sedona couple was renting a large house in Sedona, running the homeless alliance during the day and their commercial cleaning service at night.

They decided to shelter people in their large home, explained Laurie. On cold nights, about 15 people would show up at 6 p.m. There would be a communal dinner, then they would have to leave by 10 a.m., she said.

There were two lofts in the large house for people to sleep in, a place for people to shower, even a room for one homeless family to have privacy.

“It was like living in a beautiful commune,” explained Laurie. Wing would play board games with the children. The parents would express how great it was to be in a home again.

“When we were serving a meal at the house, people would be circling the table,” Laurie continued. “Somebody in the community signed up every single night that we sheltered from October to April. We would go pick (the meal) up and bring it back.”

Laurie was clear that they did not have bad feelings about having to leave the rental home after 11 years.

But now they are living out of two tents in a campground in the Verde Valley and consider themselves fortunate.

Most homeless don’t have a cooler to put food in, they don’t have a cook stove, they can’t pump water, Laurie pointed out.

But they are experiencing what it’s like to be homeless in other ways: finding a place to store their belongings, searching for WIFI outside of stores, finding campsites and taking care of their two dogs Mikey and Tom in the heat without air conditioning. 

“We feel honestly we have been handed a gift,” Laurie said, “We don’t want to be homeless, we don’t want to be living this struggle.”

“People are looking at us that have known us for so many years, and saying, my gosh how can that happen?” Laurie said. “It’s important for them to know it can happen to anybody.”

The couple said they didn’t have a deposit to put on another house and their 15-year commercial cleaning business lost a large cleaning contract when a Sedona time-share company was bought out nationally.

A generous response from the community has raised more than $4,000 for the couple on a Go Fund Me site, Laurie said, and that will cover a deposit on a rental. Laurie said the couple was very grateful, but stressed that they won’t rent a place until they get some more cleaning contracts to ensure they can cover their rent over the long-term.

Sedona homeless need a shelter

In the meantime, Laurie said the couple will continue to run the Sedona Homeless Coalition out of a campsite with a cell phone, and they are searching for a building in Sedona to shelter the homeless. The people they were sheltering in their house are now back on the street, she said.

The members of the Sedona homeless community know how to call or text them, Laurie explained.  The couple is now keeping all their donated items such as sleeping bags and clothing in a storage facility.

But Sedona, for its 100-person homeless population, has no mission for daytime or night time services, she said.

Essentially, Laurie said they were “it,” offering shelter, meals and showers to the homeless in Sedona last winter in their home.

The couple started the homeless alliance in 2015 when they saw the need in Sedona, passed out sleeping bags, tents, clothing and food. They started a program to put homeless in motel or hotel rooms when the temperature dipped below 32 degrees -- all with money raised through community donations. Wing said they did it because people were “in need.”

The next summer, because of the heat, they rented rooms and set up schedules for homeless people to take showers – until they ran out of money, she said.

People are suffering out there

The couple was sitting around in their large Sedona home trying to find a building to create a homeless shelter in  Sedona and then they thought, why not bring people to their big house, she said.

“We knew we could not officially create a shelter there,” she said. “If they have needs, they text us. As people would text that they needed a shower, they would come in. So we were serving out of our house, but not exactly creating a shelter.”

So beginning in October through April last year, they decided to shelter homeless in their home, this time on cold nights when the temperature hit 45 degrees, she said. They set up schedules for showers during the day, she said.

The City of Sedona did become aware of their situation last winter, so Laurie said they had a meeting with the city about city codes and their home. Wing and Laurie argued that their situation was no different than a vacation-home rental.

Laurie said they could charge a “penny” from the homeless people if they needed to charge them like vacation-home rentals. The couple said they never heard from the city again.

“The upsetting part is right now, is that we have no way to offer showers and people are really suffering out there. We still make touch with them. We get them what they need.”

Laurie said she sees a big difference in a homeless person after they get a shower, get a meal or spend a night in a home.

Laurie and Wing are now looking for a building to help shelter in Sedona. Cottonwood has the Old Town Mission for meals, food, clothing, services and maybe showers, but Laurie said there is nothing like that in Sedona. “We sheltered people who were 7 months old to 76.”

When they say “shelter,” they are not talking about “affordable housing.” They are talking showers, meals and overnight safety, she said. “We’ll have a building but people won’t live there.”

“Everything is donated. We have no funding. We only have funding from private citizens in our community,” she said.

The alliance also helps the homeless with applying for social services such as food stamps and mental health help, clothing and looking for jobs. They have given out more than 100 sleeping bags in two years.

‘Get back up’

“We have to make this clear. We are going through some challenges and it’s been a challenge, but this is not homeless camping. Homeless camping is:  if you are very very very lucky, you might have a tent.”

 “We are not people who don’t work. We always have. It’s not about ‘not working,’” she continued. “It’s not about addiction, it’s not about all these things that people think it’s about.”

“We know so deeply in our hearts that we are going to be OK because we are so loved by our community and we are so connected to our community.” Laurie said. “We know how loved we are. That’s how you get back up.”

Wing and Laurie ‘s Go Fund Me site is https://www.gofundme.com/WingandLaurie

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