Climbing from homelessness to give back

PHOENIX – Rudy Soliz was happy, enjoying the life of many Americans, with a good job in construction, a family, a house and cars.

“I was living the dream,” Soliz,58, said of the time before he landed where he is today. He works at Justa Center, which helps people 55 and older who are homeless get jobs, housing and such basics as food and showers.

He talks about people in need, such as Aaron Duchene, who comes to the center to shower, eat, change clothes and find shelter. Duchene remembers meeting Soliz.

“He walked up to me – ‘Oh, you’re Aaron!’ – and then he shook my hand and he hugged me. ‘Have you eaten? What can we do for you today?’”

Soliz’s co-workers say he has a knack for connecting with the homeless and makes special connections with people like Duchene.

The Maricopa Association of Governments, which oversees an annual count of the homeless, said there has been a 27 percent increase in the number of unsheltered homeless people in the county since last year.

Soliz was homeless for 2½ years, a journey that began when he injured his spine on the job a few years ago. He was placed on disability, which effectively reduced his income by a third.

Pamela Morrison, a spokeswoman for Phoenix Rescue Missions, said injuries often spur a slide onto the street. That’s especially true of people who already were low earners, she said – now they have to pay doctors and buy medication on top of basic necessities.

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Soliz lost his cars, his house and eventually his wife and kids. He said he still looked for a job, working occasionally at night at tire shop. But he had to use a scooter, which limited his mobility. He was prescribed opioids, which sometimes messed with his thinking, Solis said.

Like many people who find themselves homeless, Solis was depressed.

But his life started looking up when he found the Justa Center and met Oly Cowles, a counselor there.

“When he first starting coming here he was homeless and along with that comes depression,” Cowles recalled. “You don’t feel good about yourself, you think the world is out to get you. I think that Rudy had some of those challenges and struggles.”

Cowles saw something in Soliz and recommended him for a front desk job at the Justa Center. Just months later, Soliz was promoted to volunteer coordinator. For Soliz, who has reunited with his children and is on good terms with his ex-wife, it’s all about giving back.

“I love every minute of it,” says Soliz, “I have been working seven days a week for a long time, but I need to give back … I need to give back to what I got. It’s very hard to explain when you go through a hard relationship of being homeless like that.”

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