Newsroom | Stories From the Street: From Heartbreaking to Hope

MAG News

Annual count shows many faces of homelessness. Dawn has not yet broken on one of the coldest nights of the year. With temperatures dropping into the low 30s, nearly 1,000 volunteers fan out across the Valley. They are crisscrossing assigned grids working to count people experiencing homelessness at a single point in time.

Annual count shows many faces of homelessness

Homelessness, Human Services, PIT Count

Dawn has not yet broken on one of the coldest nights of the year. With temperatures dropping into the low 30s, nearly 1,000 volunteers fan out across the Valley. They are crisscrossing assigned grids working to count people experiencing homelessness at a single point in time.

2023 annual Point-in-Time homelessness count volunteers

The Point in Time Homelessness count is coordinated by MAG to learn more about those experiencing homelessness, help identify trends, and better tailor resources to help people access services and find housing.

The volunteers seek to engage with those they encounter. Those willing to talk are asked a series of questions, such as how long they have been homeless, whether domestic violence was a factor, challenges faced in attaining housing, and what resources are most needed. Individuals who are sleeping or not willing to engage are counted as “observed.”

volunteers counting those experiencing homelessness during 2023 annual Point-in-Time homelessness count

The stories are as individual as the people themselves.

Vanessa Soto Hernandez spent the frigid night sleeping in a friend’s pickup in an alley east of downtown Phoenix. The 30-year old says she has been homeless for a year, after being kicked out by the father of her four children due to her drug use. Vanessa says she has struggled to stay clean, but says she relapsed when her boyfriend found a new partner.

“Ever since this last time, it’s been harder for me to get out. And I try and I try every day to just stay sober. And I’m not going to say I’m a hundred percent there, but I’ve reduced my amounts and try my hardest,” she says.

Vanessa wipes away tears when asked what one thing she needs most.

“I need my kids, that’s what I need. I mean, I can talk to my kids, I can see them, but it’s hard not to have anywhere to take them, to be with them,” she says, the tears flowing faster. “I try to stay motivated and think that this will be over soon, but I don’t know, sometimes I don’t know, I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Woman and man experiencing homelessness share their story with volunteers

Vanessa Soto Hernandez and Luis León are friends who spent the frigid January night sleeping in a pickup parked in an alley.

Her friend, Luis León, also spent the night in his pickup. Luis has been homeless for three years. After he divorced his wife, he says depression took over and he began using drugs. “I lost my job. I was left with nothing. I have no family in the U.S., so I practically ended up on the streets,” he said.

Luis is trying to overcome his struggles and is now working overnight cleaning a grocery store.

“I’m trying to move forward, I want to fix my life, and have a normal life again. Sometimes you just need a place to sleep. When you’re on the streets, sometimes you spend all day walking to find a place to stay or rest, and sometimes you don’t find it. And when you sleep at night, you can’t, because other people are watching over you to steal from you or do harm,” he says.

Regardless of the harsh situation he and others face, Luis says people sometimes just need a little bit of help.

“There’s many people on the streets who are really trying to overcome their…struggles, who want to move forward, and what they need is just a little bit of help, to be extended a hand.”

A blue-eyed dog named “Horse”

One team encountered Cory Pierce and his dog, “Horse.” Cory had been homeless for four years after losing his business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I lost everything that I had,” says Cory. “I mean literally, everything I had, except for my dog. My dog has been a rock for me, so I make sure he’s taken care of pretty well.”

Cory says a major need for people experiencing homelessness is public bathrooms and showers. Respite from the weather is another need, as many don’t realize that Phoenix can be “wickedly” cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer, making survival difficult. He says those on the street are continually chased from place to place.

“A person has to occupy space. Somewhere, you know what I mean, you can’t just push somebody all over the place…and shuffle them around like they’re cardboard. You know, these people, they have feelings and rights and families, too. They’re somebody’s brother, son, sisters, mothers. And just because they’re homeless doesn’t take away who they are inside. I lost my shelter, not my morality.”

Still, Cory had some good news to share.

2023 annual Point-in-Time homelessness count volunteers encounter Cory and his dog Horse

Cory Pierce lived on the streets for four years before his dog, Horse, helped bring attention to his homelessness.

A big-hearted man named Tony

“I literally just had an angel, a guy named Tony, he blessed me. He got me off the streets. He got me a little studio apartment right over here in exchange for working for him. So, I’ve only been off the street for four days.”

We decided to find Cory’s benefactor, Anthony Nigro, to dig deeper into the reason for his generosity. We found him at Tony’s International Mufflers and Tire Shop a few blocks away. Tony says he first saw Cory washing his dog. Tony and his wife are starting a dog rescue, and he was captivated by Horse’s blue eyes. When he ran into Cory again a few days later, Tony decided he wanted to help.

“The dog and him together kind of were a package deal,” says Tony. “It kind of opened up my heart and I wanted to try to help this gentleman and get him off the streets.”

Tony Nigro helped Cory who was experiencing homelessness interview during 2023 annual Point-in-Time homelessness count

Anthony Nigro provided Cory Pierce with housing, work, food, and other support.

Warmth, groceries, and paying it forward

Tony got Cory an apartment and furnished it with furniture that he had on hand.

“I went to the grocery store, I got him bologna and milk and an ice box and heater and dog bed. And he’s got a bathroom, and I tried to help him work around the shop and try to get him on his feet.”

Tony also worked to help Cory get an ID, Social Security card, and free phone. When asked why he would go to such lengths for a complete stranger, Tony’s eyes glisten with tears as he answers.

“My father was killed when I was 2 years old, my uncle just passed away and I’ve always, I’m going to get emotional, I’ve always tried to do this before and try to help people, so this is probably my third time doing this.”

Tony says this time, he wants to succeed.

“It makes me feel better inside, knowing that I’m contributing to someone and that I have a purpose here. What I don’t want to do is to have a life (that is) meaningless and no purpose. I want to be able to say that I helped someone and was able to do something for someone in this world.”

Cory says he has been humbled by Tony’s generosity and hopes someday he can repay the debt. But Tony says it won’t be him who Cory repays, but someone else.

“Because that’s what it’s all about: paying it forward. And that’s exactly what I told him. I said, I don’t want a penny from you, no money from you…what I want you to do is the same thing I’ve done for you, you do for someone else. Pay it forward.”

For more information or to find out how you can help, contact the Maricopa Association of Governments or visit azmag.gov/homelessness.

Published February 13, 2023