In the town of Payson lives a boy of the same name who loves football.
“I’m faster than half the NFL (National Football League) players,” wrote Payson in a letter read by Karen Carlen at a conference on homelessness Thursday. “I hold the ball tight and never let go.”
Payson has also been homeless, sleeping in the woods and in abandoned car washes.
His mother drank alcohol when pregnant with Payson and his twin brother, and the twins were born unhealthy. His brother died, and Payson’s heart sits on his right side.
Payson’s mother dropped the ball.
Carlen read Payson’s letter Thursday at a homeless summit organized organized by the Payson Unified School District and Southwest Behavioral Services.
Local leaders from social service agencies, staff from the school district, religious leaders and others converged to discuss the problems facing Payson’s homeless families and how the community can address those needs. Those present at the summit broke off into six groups to discuss housing and shelter, health care, employment and daily living.
The day marked the beginning of what advocates hope will bloom into greater community awareness about the problem and synergy so families in Rim Country can access resources.
“Rim Country is in a unique position to identify kids and help them,” said Carlen. “You guys are the players and we do have a winning team.”
Payson was in the hospital with pneumonia, but his letter, and accompanying pictorial slideshow of places he slept at night, moved the 67 people in attendance, as did the stories of other homeless youth.
More than 300 students in Payson schools qualify as homeless, although the majority live “doubled up” with multiple families under one roof.
Parent Community Liaison Blanche Oakland said she has seen as many as eight families living under one roof.
People become homeless two ways — by personal choice or misfortune, said a once-homeless girl named Kayla. Last names are not being used due to the topic’s sensitivity. As a 16-year-old, Kayla befriended kids into drugs, and her parents, feeling helpless, kicked her out.
“I wasn’t a horrible kid. I don’t think there is such a thing,” she said. Everybody contains goodness.
She eventually met the man she would marry, and the two lived in Mesa after a stint of living on the streets together. Kayla worked at Arby’s while her husband looked for a job. When he found employment, Kayla lost hers.
This time, homelessness occurred without choice. They came to Payson because of the forest, with its river for bathing and crawdads for dinner.
Eventually, a kind couple took in Kayla and her husband. “Without them, I don’t know how we would have survived the winter.”
Services exist in Payson, however those at the summit concluded a central hub is necessary for cohesiveness, and so various agencies know what others offer.
“We are all standing alone instead of being lateral,” said Judy Baker, director of Mogollon Health Alliance.
Some services aren’t well publicized, like those offered by the county health department, Baker said. The county offers immunizations and vaccines, along with family planning and the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a low-income food and nutrition federal program.
“This is a community issue. It’s not just the school district,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien. “The community-at-large, I don’t think they understand there’s a problem.”
O’Brien urged leaders to form a group, to continue the day’s momentum.
“Nothing gets done unless there’s a group of people at the core,” O’Brien said. “Dialogue is only good if there is a step that follows.”
Payson, the boy, said, “There are many kids like me — so please don’t drop the ball.”