During the winter, Lake Havasu City has long been home to a seasonal homeless population. They find lodging in homeless camps throughout the city or ultimately catching the eye of local law enforcement. Not all of them can change their lives for the better – but sometimes, there’s help.
Veterans United Arizona worked with Lake Havasu City community members this winter to help one woman transition from homelessness with a new car, a new job and a new path for the future. For the woman, who asked not to be identified by Today’s News-Herald, it was a transition that began last year in an unlikely place.
At the Lake Havasu City Aquatic Center, tall glass windows look out upon the curve of Park Avenue. The road ultimately leads to the rolling hills and arid wilderness that is Body Beach, which has for years been a refuge to Havasu’s homeless. Camps are often hidden well within the overgrown thistle and sagebrush that decorate Havasu’s shores, but the beach’s residents always emerge for food, water and shelter.
Donna Best-Carlton, a recreation supervisor for the Lake Havasu City Department of Parks and Recreation, can usually tell who they are.
“The recreation center is one of the first places they come,” Carlton said. “They come for water, to see people, to get warm in the winter or cool in the summer. We’re free to the public, and it’s a place where we can meet and greet people who are most in need. We’re a common place for all people.”
Parks and recreation staff often work with nonprofit organizations, such as Veterans United, to assist the city’s homeless. Carlton and other staff members offer free showers, supplies and hygiene products given by local sponsors for transient men and women who venture to the facility.
“We look out the window every day, and we can see them come,” Carlton said. “You can tell that they’re homeless.”
Faith and circumstance
It’s not uncommon for Havasu’s homeless to run afoul of local law enforcement, for better or worse. Anti-camping ordinances in Havasu prohibit sleeping in public, and the city’s transient population can be warned or jailed for doing so.
“She was cited for sleeping after hours,” Carlton said. “I think she was charged with trespassing. She was sentenced to about 60 hours of community service, and did it at the Christian radio station, KNLB, where my sister is a host.”
Carlton’s sister is Debbie Eckelbarger, also known as “Miss Debbie” to her listeners, who hosts a Bible study program – “Treehouse One” – which is syndicated throughout the Southwest. The 55-year-old woman worked for two weeks under Eckelbarger, answering phones, stuffing envelopes, correlating papers and even speaking to young callers.
“She said it was really encouraging,” Eckelbarger said. “She was a delight … she enjoyed being here, and she was really helpful. She seemed to make everyone smile around here.”
After her community service was served, Carlton worked with the woman to make a list of things Havasu’s nonprofit organizations could provide. The woman has no car, no tent, no sleeping bag, but Carlton and others were willing to provide them.
“We knew she would continue to get citations if she stayed in Havasu,” Carlton said. “She wasn’t someone who wanted to take a handout. We helped her relocate to SARA Park in October, where she wouldn’t get into trouble. We thought of her from time to time, and hoped she was okay.”
Guess who’s coming to dinner
It was in early December, at the Lake Havasu City Community Dinner, Carlton saw the woman again. The free annual event is hosted by the Aquatic Center, and often draws thousands of residents each year – including those who need it the most.
“In December, we were coming into some really awful weather,” Carlton said. “We had a chance to say hi to her, and see how she was doing. The rain had destroyed her tent, and the condition she was living in was heart-wrenching. I talked to my husband … we decided to bring her home to do her laundry and take a shower. Then we asked her to spend the holidays with us.”
For Christmas, Carlton asked the woman to make a list of the things she would need when she returned to the desert. Carlton asked friends and family to provide those items for her houseguest, rather than traditional Christmas gifts. According to Carlton, her loved ones were eager to help.
“The thing she needed most was a car,” Carlton said. “God put this on my heart – to show her God’s love for her, through me. I wanted to give her a gift, with no conditions.”
Carlton owned a personal watercraft, stored away in her garage. She decided to sell it to raise money for a vehicle to help the woman.
“Frankie Lyons had a vehicle that she said needed a little work,” Carlton said.
Lyons, the president of Havasu’s Veterans United Arizona organization, didn’t shy from the opportunity to aid someone in need. “She said I could have it for $250. Frankie, Tire Mart, the Shell gas station … everyone chipped in.”
Just a little more time
Last Friday, Carlton helped the woman register and insure her new 2005 Ford Expedition. The vehicle itself wasn’t expected to be ready until Sunday – But according to Carlton, she was going to need it much sooner than that.
Law enforcement officers found the woman’s campsite last week, Carlton said, and told her to leave the area of SARA Park. The woman had no place else to go.
“I called (Mohave County Sheriff Doug Schuster),” Carlton said. “I asked for a favor, and explained her situation. She needed two more days. He said he’d look into it and see what he could do.”
According to Carlton, the woman had only been permitted to stay in the area of SARA Park for two weeks, and would be evicted. She only needed a few days more to leave the area with the car offered by Lyons and Carlton.
“He called me back, and said she could stay until this Sunday,” Carlton said. “We gave her the car on Saturday … Frankie came through. We have all of these great nonprofits in Havasu, and Frankie tries helping the homeless, period – whether they’re veterans or not, she comes through every time.”
A new start
Now the woman has a part-time job, and is training under Lyons to learn merchandising at Veterans United Arizona’s Sweetwater Avenue thrift store.
“A lot can happen in one year,” Carlton said. “This person was homeless for 14 years. It doesn’t mean she’s loved any less, and she’s no less of a human being than the rest of us.”
According to Lyons, this is just a starting point for her new employee.
Veterans United Arizona is attempting to obtain other services that Lyons hopes will ultimately allow her to transition back into a normal life and a home of her own.
“We try to help where we can all the time, whether they’re veterans or not,” Lyons said. “Sometimes they just need to take a hand-up to get back on track. We put our hand out and hoped she’d reach out for help. If you can help one person, or save one person, it’s worth a lifetime of effort.”
It’s no small feat to come back, Lyons said, but it’s not impossible. Her organization has helped dozens of Havasu’s homeless get a fresh start.
“I can’t remember how many people we’ve helped out of the desert and got them back to their loved ones, gotten them into houses and homes. We do it in the hope they’ll ground themselves, and see a light at the end of their tunnel.”