Without a Home: Success stories show difficulty of escaping homelessness in Valley

Jun 16, 2023, 4:35 AM

This is the last of a five-part series titled “Without a Home,” a KTAR News special report on homelessness in metro Phoenix. Read Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Tune to 92.3 FM or visit for more in-depth coverage of the issue.

PHOENIX — Homelessness can be difficult to escape, and fighting to reduce it requires the work of many professionals, government organizations, nonprofits and volunteers.

No one knows that better than Samantha Jackson. She’s the community engagement and development director for Valley of the Sun United Way – a nonprofit investor in Maricopa County.

“Really, what we are is connectors,” Jackson explained. “We’ve got incredible partnerships with shelters, organizations that provide rental and utility service, diversion, or help with transportation.”

Jackson’s organization also has a serious goal as part of its Mighty Change initiative: cutting Valley homelessness in half by 2026.

How can homelessness be reduced?

There are a few areas Valley of the Sun United Way has identified as important to reducing homelessness.

“Prevention is a big key,” Jackson said. “If there is a possibility with rental assistance or utility assistance to keep somebody in their home, we want to make that happen.”

She added that more shelter space, and housing in general, is a necessity.

“There’s just not enough supply overall,” she said. “There aren’t enough shelter beds, there isn’t enough transitional or bridge housing, places that are considered rapid rehousing … there’s not enough permanent supportive housing.”

Despite these issues, there can still be success stories when someone experiencing homelessness can get help.

A good example is John Merkel, a shelter support staffer with Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, who was once homeless himself.

“I equate it to being at the bottom of this huge hole that I dug for myself,” he said.

What is it like to experience homelessness?

Merkel recounted how he spent several years in shelters.

“I ended up at CASS about three years ago,” he said. “I had lost my wallet with my ID in it, I didn’t have my birth certificate, I couldn’t get a job. I was wearing contact lenses at the time and I didn’t have any lenses left, so I was like partially blind.”

He also had to face more difficult conditions.

“I was on the street for a grand total of maybe two weeks or so, and that’s crazy,” he remembered. “Growing up, I never imagined I was going to be sleeping on a park bench.”

Even though he acknowledged it wasn’t the ideal situation, Merkel had difficulty getting out of the shelter system.

“When you’re in a shelter environment, you’re in quicksand. … You’re doing everything to keep your head above water, just not to drown,” he explained. “Things like finding a job, doing the other things you need to do … those things kind of get put on the back burner because you’re just trying to survive.”

Merkel made his way to CASS’s Project Haven shelter, which gave him more stability. Still, he knew he had to find another option.

“I found myself lying in bed one night staring up at the ceiling, and I’m like, ‘How am I going to get out of this thing? I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” he recounted.

From homelessness to helping others

He persevered thanks to the help of his caseworker, who worked to get him into Section 8 housing. That wasn’t easy, either.

“It takes forever to get a voucher, first of all,” he said. “Then you have to go out and you have to find someone who will accept that voucher. I was given a list of numbers, but I had to call 38 of them. How does somebody who doesn’t have that list do it?”

The hard work was worth it. Merkel went from being homeless to connecting others experiencing homelessness with the services that can give them a chance at stability.

“I’ll tell them, ‘I was you 3½ years ago,’” he said. “They’re really receptive … a couple of guys have given me hugs. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to them, to show them that if I can do it, they can do it, too.”

We want to hear from you.

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Without a Home: Success stories show difficulty of escaping homelessness in Valley