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SSVF Success Relxford Lavellehayes

Reprinted with permission from the Arizona City Independent.

Veteran finds stability in Pinal after decades of homelessness

By JAKE KINCAID Arizona City Independent Staff Writer

ARIZONA CITY — Relxford Lavellehayes moved to Arizona with nothing but a car after almost 40 years of intermittent homelessness. Having lived most of his life in Kansas, he came to Arizona for the same reason many people do: He was seeking a respite from winter.

Unlike most snowbirds, Lavellehayes had a justified fear that the winter would someday kill him. Although he had survived many nights on the frozen streets of Kansas, Lavellehayes didn’t know how many more he had in him at the age of 65.

“At my age, I got tired, I didn’t want to end up frozen to death under a bridge someday,” he said. “I came to Arizona figuring if I was gonna be homeless I could be in a place where I didn’t have to have snowshoes.”

SSVF Project Coordinator Tianna Cann holding NCHP's Greater Casa Grande Chamber of Commerce Plaque
Relxford Lavellehayes sits in his new Arizona City apartment.
Jake Kincaid/PinalCentral




Before coming to Pinal County, Lavellehayes became sober and started receiving treatment for his bipolar disorder, leaving him with a clear head for the first time in years and an even clearer conviction that he wanted to escape homelessness.

But the best path to stability and security was not obvious.

“When you’re homeless, you don’t look at anything that can help you get out of that rut,” he said. “If you don’t take care of your mental issues that got you there, you’re going to be stuck there.”

Lavellehayes describes his experience with homelessness as a state of constant vigilance and struggle for survival. After spending a few nights in the same place, you quickly become a target for petty thieves who aim to take the few possessions you might be carrying with you. When Lavellehayes was younger, he could defend himself, but these days he said it’s not so easy.

Combined with the constant daily struggle for food and the internal battle against the self-destructive cycle of addiction, homelessness became a trap that was increasingly more difficult to escape the longer he spent on the streets.

“When you are homeless and you get in that mode, you gotta have something trigger you and show you that if you get out of it, it will be worthwhile,” he said.

Lavellehayes served in the Air Force in California between 1971 and 1973, moving cargo between planes at an important stopover in the transport lines between Vietnam and the United States. He worked long hours loading and unloading cargo going to and from Vietnam.

One of the memories that stands out to Lavellehayes from his time in the service is unloading the bodies that got shipped back from Vietnam.

“When the bodies came home from ‘Nam, they didn’t come home in a casket with a flag draped over them like they are now. They came home in a metal container in a black bag,” he recalls. “Sometimes if the plane had a rough landing the containers would bust open. So we had to pick them up and get them back in the bag. We didn’t have no gloves.”

Lavellehayes got out of the service and worked in a refinery for some years in Kansas. He traces the start of his descent into homelessness and addiction back to the murder of his younger brother, who was found with a gunshot to the head at 19 in a Kansas City park. Lavellehayes never found out who did it.

Hard times followed for Lavellehayes as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s swept the country.

He got hooked.

“Once you get that feeling, it was more important to you than being able to take care of yourself.”

Lavellehayes quickly found himself living on the streets in the mid ’80s. He worked odd jobs and found housing at times, but he always ended up back on the streets.

That was until seven months ago, when he finally settled into an apartment in Arizona City, thanks to the National Community Housing program operated by the nonprofit organization National Community Health Partners. The program came into contact with Lavellehayes, who was living out of his car at the time, through the local U.S. Veteran Affairs office.

The National Community Housing program works with about 200 veterans and their families per year, who are either homeless or imminently at risk for homelessness.

“We use a housing-first model. Whether they have income or not, we need to get them housed. Because housing is the foundation in order to become successful,” said Project Coordinator Tianna Cann. “Once you have that foundation and you know you’re secure, then you’re able to become successful.”

Once the organization found Lavellehayes, it put him into emergency housing and got him clothing and gas cards, eventually finding him permanent housing with furniture in Arizona City, where he is now. Once the organization has gotten someone into housing, it focuses on medical care. It made sure Lavellehayes was going to his doctor appointments and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, offering him transportation when he needs it.

It covers a deposit, first month’s rent and up to three months after that to get people off the streets, and then works to get them a job and maximize benefits that they receive.

The first thing Lavellehayes did when he got to his new apartment was put eye bolts down to stop somebody from breaking in. Although he was secure in his new home, he couldn’t shake the need to constantly look out for his safety that years on the streets had taught him.

“I didn’t want anybody to come in my apartment and take it from me,” he said. “You always gotta worry about someone coming in when you’re homeless.”

Now, at age 65, he is finally sober and getting treatment for his bipolar disorder with a stable roof over his head. He said he is extremely grateful for the help he has received.

He regrets that it took him so long to get here. He has fewer years left in his life than he spent living with addiction and homelessness.

“If I die now, let me die in my bed,” he said. “Today I’m content, and I’m hoping I’ll be content tomorrow and the next day. Even with my bad back and all my aches, I’m still content with my mind and a roof over my head. I’ve honestly never been like that in my whole life.

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