Gayle’s house was hot, so hot that the thermostat said
“high”, and my thermometer said 94 degrees. July in Tucson is the worst
possible time for a cooling system failure. Gayle’s AC had been out for at
least five days – I know this because there were five days’ worth of newspapers
on the driveway. And Gayle had medical issues that left her incredibly
vulnerable in the excessive heat – I know this because of the hospital bed in
her bedroom, and the oxygen concentrator next to it. As for Gayle, I never had the pleasure of
meeting her, because she had been hospitalized due to heat related illness, and
the hospital was refusing to discharge her until her air conditioning was
It’s unusual for us to work for client’s that are not home to let us in. It’s unusual to receive a work order that includes the phrase “please feed and water the cats.” But this was not a usual job. What it was, was an urgent job. So Mary and I began to troubleshoot the system, working against 95 degree indoor temperatures. We quickly determined that there was something very wrong with the air handler. So off to the attic we went, thus raising the temperature of our work environment by 25 degrees. And there we found it, a worn out blower motor.
Gayle had spent a week in the hospital due to the failure of
a $100 part. But, the client didn’t have that $100, and certainly didn’t have
what an HVAC company would charge to install it. And so something as simple as
a motor can lead to a life threatening situation, and a very long hospital
stay. This is the place where poverty, medical issues, and home ownership collide
in the worst possible way. The place where a simple repair is simply out of
financial reach, and homeowners take their chances and do their best to endure.
And this is also the place where CHRPA has the greatest of impacts. Because we
can and did replace that blower motor. And we can do so without asking for a
cent from the client. And even though it’s not a typical request, we can even
feed and water the cats when necessary. And we did all of that, which allowed
Gayle to go home from the hospital.
I still haven’t met Gayle. But I understand she expressed
gratitude for the work we did. And I am thankful as well, that she is
recovering and able to go home.
The first time I went to the house, I was somewhat shocked.
The roof in the kitchen and living room was in a state of slow collapse,
sagging down so low that I had to duck as I walked through the home. There was
no illusion of being rain-resistant—the roof had basically become a water
catchment, funneling water into the house.
Albert told me that they had moved his grandmother Isabel
out of the home out of fear for her safety. “Good thinking,” I said. “I’m
nervous just walking under this thing.”
Unfortunately, the house is outside the city of Tucson, so
our city funds won’t be applicable.
Unfortunately, the mobile home is in a park on the edge of
the Tohono o’Odham land, so Pima County money can’t be used on the home.
Unfortunately, Albert’s grandmother is not a Native
American, so tribal resources are not available to help repair her home.
Fortunately, CHRPA received a CORE Grant from the Community
Foundation of Southern Arizona, and fortunately this funding is unrestricted
and doesn’t say anything about tribal status or city limits. We got a delivery
of trusses and with a mixed crew of family members, CHRPA staff and volunteers,
we removed the old roof to the sky and set new trusses, installed a new roof
deck and put a new roof on the home. Family members insulated and installed
drywall. It was a beautiful thing to see a wide-ranging partnership restore
this home for Isabel, and every part of the team was essential.
“I wasn’t sure we could manage this,” Albert told me when
his grandmother moved back home. “It seemed impossible to get this house put
“The house came
together,” I answered, “because the team
A little bit of lady power goes a long way. Destinee, Ann, and I set out one Thursday to build a 28’ ramp for our client, Nicole. Destinee, Ann, and Scott all looked very skeptical that this ramp could be built in one day. Nicole lives way out by Picture Rocks and we still needed to buy lumber.
As we are on the road, I share Nicole’s story. Recently, a neighbor’s dog bit her brother. A week later, it bit her friend. A week after that, it bit Nicole. She went to the hospital, and after a week, the doctors decided they couldn’t save the leg she had been bit on. Now Nicole is an amputee with one leg ending just above her knee, and the dog that bit her has been put down.
Nicole has steps into her home, and was discharged from the hospital before a ramp could be built. To leave her house to go to appointments, she had to rely on her son to help her, and sometimes lift her, up and down the stairs. This is less than ideal, and so a friend of Nicole’s sought out CHRPA for help. CHRPA came, with a truck full of lumber and ladies.
Okay, I admit, it was a pretty lofty goal to finish in a day. But I had the perfect crew, and after a hard day’s work, the platform was complete. It was only one day that negatively affected Nicole’s life, and it was also only one day that helped the future look more positive and possible.
Eva answered the door wrapped in blankets. “Nobody has been
able to fix the furnace and my mom can’t come home until the heat is on.” Her
mom, Rosa, had been hospitalized with bronchitis two weeks ago and went to stay
with her son because it was just too cold in her house and the chill would
inhibit her recovery.
A non-working furnace that others have walked away from?
This sounded like a challenge I was up to tackling. Eva was skeptical – she’d
heard confident assessments before and her house was still freezing and her mom
was still sick and unable to live at home. Home should be a place of respite
not a cause of illness.
Dan’s assessment from the previous day was correct – a bad
control board. If the “brain” of the furnace stops working, you better believe
that the whole furnace won’t work. The tough part would be finding a
replacement, since furnace control boards are very specific to the make and
model of the furnace and this specific furnace is 25 years old. Three calls in
and I wasn’t having any luck, but the fourth time was the charm.
It is not every day where things go your way and the magical
part is waiting for you at a supply house.
I was thrilled (and relieved) to not have to tell Eva that she and her
mom would have to wait another week while the part got ordered and delivered. A
touch of grace and heavy dose of luck had put a board in my hand and the
furnace would be back on today.
The furnace coming back to life brought life to Eva’s eyes too. She put her hand to the register and could hardly believe the warmth. As I finished up the paperwork, Eva called her mom, her voice was filled with joy and the muffled joy on the other end of the line signaled that life would go back to normal and she could come home.
Heat really is that important, even in the desert.
My van Bones and I kept climbing up into the Catalina Foothills. It was another rainy day this October, clouds hanging low, lightning striking in the distance. I peered into the rear view mirror and glanced at the Tucson valley below. “Not a typical Chrpa neighborhood,” I muttered.
I came to the end of a cul-de-sac and drove another hundred feet up to the house. I was greeted by the daughter. She immediately delved into explaining to me not to judge the book by the cover. Her mother has lived there for 30 plus years, lost her husband of 65 years just last year, and has not been able to keep up with the 40 year old house on social security.
We walked into the house and as I surveyed the interior I noticed 30 year deep red wrinkled carpet that had loosened from years of use. Yep, an obvious tripping hazard. We walked up the steps, another issue for the 85-year-old occupant to navigate. Everything in the house was vintage 1980’s. That included all of the plumbing fixtures and appliances. Drippy faucets, hard to open sliding glass doors, leaky sections on the shingled roof, low toilets that had lost their ability to flush adequately.
The repairs were overwhelming and costly for the elder Greek Widow. She and her husband had immigrated from Greece in the early 50’s and had settled in Chicago. Life was much better in the States and they took part in the American Dream, starting up a small business that provided them the opportunity to buy a house and raise a family. After many years of freezing winters, they finally realized the Southwest was a better place to live.
Now that her husband was gone she found herself with a modest social security check and an adult son with severe mental issues living with her. Even though her house was paid for, by the time she paid for property tax, utilities and food she had very little to use for upkeep of the house. Looking around at the space she was living in, I wondered if maybe the best solution would be to sell the house and move into a smaller single level house, but her daughter said her mother loved the house and would never want to leave it.
Our crews will be able to fix those drippy faucets and leaky roofs and hopefully give her the peace of mind knowing that water bill might be a little more manageable. As I left I was given a warm hug and delicious piece of Greek pastry to feast on while I headed back into the Tucson valley. I also had a reminder that everyone has a story and a set of challenges not seen from the edge of the cul-de-sac.
I’ve encountered this story line so many times in recent weeks that it’s difficult to not to see a pattern emerging in Pima County: Clients experience a problem with X aspect of their living situation, and not wanting to seek charity, attempt to hire professionals to ameliorate said issue, only to be quoted XXX dollars to complete said work and then, discouraged, people seek out an agency such as our own for assistance.
This was exactly Rafael’s situation as of last week. A damp spot in the yard turned into a geyser of wasted water and Rafael freaked out. He called a local professional outfit that quoted him a $1200 bill to trench the thirty or so feet to his house. The actual plumbing work was in addition to that and I’m uncertain what the total cost would have been for him if he had signed up for their payment plan in exchange for a new water line. So my boss lent him a trenching shovel and mattock and told him to call our office once he cut a narrow channel the thirty or so feet from the meter box to his house.
Which he did, with the help of his son, in record time. I made my way to his home early in the morning. While I worked to unearth the meter box, Rafael hovered around my work space, asked technical questions about pipe technologies, and just kind of hung around. The conversation eventually moved in two different directions; one was me asking for assistance pushing new pipe under the wall, and second, him telling me about his personal experience working as a teacher and losing part of his vision, and all of his ability to work as a teacher, to a series of benign but life-complicating brain tumors.
We wrapped up work in a few hours, re-pressurized his system, and both felt equally successful in eliminating a water leak in the dry desert. That’s a beautiful part of the pattern too. If CHRPA can eliminate costs for at-risk homeowners, and incorporate our clients in whatever way they are able so that the project feels more collaborative, then I’m glad this pattern continues.
“I was hoping the two big guys who were here before would be the ones to install the cooler,” Harry told Mary and me.
I saw what he meant when he showed us where the completely-rusted-through cooler sat. It was on a balcony, over a wall, and higher than any cooler I had previously encountered. We had to fully extend CHRPA’s longest extension ladder against the balcony wall, climb over the parapet wall and drop down a couple of feet to the balcony floor.
“I, too, wish those other two guys came back. That way we wouldn’t have to figure out how to get the cooler on that balcony,” I muttered to Mary. Thankfully, Harry was eager to help. An extra set of hands was essential to our eventual success. Mission accomplished. Harry spent the rest of the 113 degree afternoon with us on the roof, talking to us, refilling our cups with ice water.
Harry and June’s house had a stunning view of the Catalina Mountains. Harry told us they had moved to Tucson from Chicago 22 years ago. “We had a house that was barely 2×4’s and tin on a small lot in Chicago. We sold that and were able to buy this place here. That’ll tell you how different the cost of living is! We used to be pretty well off financially. But my son got in a motorcycle accident two weeks after he was too old to be on our health insurance and had to spend 11 days in the burn unit. A few days later, I got a heart attack, and since my son and I owned our own business, we lost that too. So we were swamped with hospital bills and had no income, so we had to drain everything we had saved. And now we survive on our disability income. It’s sad how fast everything can change.”
Harry refilled our cups with ice water once more as Mary and I started packing up our tools. “It’s like Christmas! I can’t wait to try the new cooler! You both are amazing.” And maybe as an effort to redeem himself for wishing the two big men had shown up instead of Mary and me, Harry said, “It sure will useful for you two to be self-sufficient with all these skills. My mother was a strong woman, so I’m somewhat of a feminist too.”