At homeless seniors center, miracles are standard


100 years 100 stories

Related Stories:


Giving the coats off their backs: Valley volunteers try to keep homeless warm


Current economic climate results in higher need for food donations during holiday season


Army veteran faces unemployment, homelessness


Volunteers wash homeless people's feet to pay them honor

United Food Bank experiences higher demand for food this holiday season


Job fair targets unemployed veterans, helps them find work


West Phoenix High School student learns to live without much


Finding work proves difficult for those with disabilities


Navajo relies on weaving as sole source of income

justa center
The Justa Center provides resources and support for homeless seniors. (Photo by Sean Peick)

It’s a small, unassuming building on the outskirts of downtown Phoenix along West Jefferson Street. But for some in the community, the place known as the Justa Center has been a huge part of their lives.

“It’s a blessing, this place is a blessing as far as I’m concerned,” said Hector, who’s been coming to the center for over a year.

Phoenix’s population over the age of 65 has reached 8.1 percent, according to the 2010 Census and resources for homeless seniors are scarce.

The Justa Center, a day resource center for homeless adults 55 and older, is the only establishment of its kind in the country, according to the Rev. Scott Ritchey, co-founder and the current director of the center.

“There’s a couple of places that work just with older adults who are homeless,” Ritchey said. “But nothing as comprehensive or holistic as what we’re doing.”

The other places to which he is referring are located in Seattle (more akin to a senior center) and San Francisco (which focuses on alcohol and drug rehabilitation). At the Justa Center, however, the goal is something much more comprehensive.

That goal is getting these down-on-their-luck seniors out of homelessness and back to a self-sustaining lifestyle. It’s a three-fold operation, Ritchey said, and it includes the following steps:

  • Finding and paying for some form of documentation for the person, such as an ID, birth certificate or immigration documents
  • Securing a revenue source, whether through employment, Social Security, VA benefits or other myriad sources
  • Getting a place for permanent housing – defined by the center as independent living, assisted living, a reunion with family or hospice

The Justa Center was founded in December 2006 by Ritchey, Micole Filder, Sherman Detrick and Marion van Winkle. The comprehensive Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) complex was being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people seeking their services and was also not prepared to fully help the seniors who were among those showing up.

The older adults were at a disadvantage because of their age, Ritchey said.

“There was lots of violence,” he said. “In the homeless community, everything’s about standing in line – and so they’d be standing in line, and young people would just push them out of the way or they just weren’t aggressive enough to fight for their position or resources that they needed.”

Ritchey and his group, already in possession of the building, went to the CASS campus and asked what groups would be best served by a new center. The people at CASS told them that the three most-excluded groups were the gays/lesbians/bisexuals, the disabled and the elderly.

“So originally, we started out with all three of those groups,” Ritchey said. “But the largest group, and the necessary group that we needed to target, was older adults – and that’s what we did. So after several months, we kind of changed our direction and became 55 and older.”

With no template on which to base their operations, Ritchey and his co-founders sat down with a group of homeless seniors and asked them what resources they would need to get out of homelessness.

Ever since then, the needs and wants of the community have largely decided what the Justa Center offers – from laundry and showers to TVs and Internet access, and even partnering with the Department of Economic Security to place people on food stamps and formerly health care, among other services.

The building isn’t zoned for overnight stays, so the Justa Center is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and after it closes, people go back to CASS or the streets. The city of Phoenix was less than pleased initially when the center opened, Ritchey said.

“They felt like the campus (CASS) was sufficient, they didn’t want any more homeless resources in this neighborhood,” Ritchey said. “So we chatted, and we just said, ‘You know, we’re not going to be a night shelter, we’ll be good neighbors.’”

Despite the sporadic seniors who wander in one day and then are never seen again, Ritchey said that most of the people the Justa Center services are in it for the long haul – sometimes for as long as two years.

“The nickname of this place is the Justa Country Club – so we don’t have clients, we have members of the country club,” said Ritchey.

It’s not often that people lose their membership – Ritchey said it’s usually around three or four times a month – but when they do, it’s usually as a result of substance abuse or going against the only rule the Justa Center has – “no drama”. Ritchey, however, has a personal rule that he is not afraid to enforce.

“For me, if you’re participating in your life to the best of your ability that day, then you can stay as long as you want,” he said. “When you stop participating in your life, we stop participating in your life.”

Hector, who is 59, has been coming to the Justa Center since being laid off from his job at a printing shop. He is now employed by the center through a federally funded program called ageWORKS. This gives him enough of an income to live in an apartment with another man, Mike – a 55-year-old who is also employed by the center after coming for several months.

Hector credited the Justa Center with saving him from having to spend more time at the Men’s Outreach shelter at the CASS campus. Mike agreed.

“You have to visit it to understand it,” he said. “Your first night will convince you about the life we have to live in order to get to where we at now, and why we would not, or pray, that we do not go back to the streets again.”

It was the Justa Center, Hector said, that helped him to focus his efforts on pulling himself out of homelessness and unemployment.

“They help you without expecting anything,” he said. “If they see that you’re trying to help yourself, they go out of their way to help you.”