from homeless to author: Burn's "Shelter", U. of Arizona Press

Tom Boland (
Thu, 7 May 1998 01:15:59 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Arizona Daily Star - Sunday, 3 May 1998


  Once homeless, Bobby Burns has book on way

  By Jill Jorden Spitz

Bobby Burns didn't set out to write a book about homelessness.

All he wanted when he set pen to paper 4 1/2 years ago was to survive his
fall from society with his pride intact.

So the college graduate and former Navy cook wrote - filling 15 notebooks
during his 41 days in the Primavera Men's Shelter. He wrote about the
sights, sounds and smells of the cavernous southside shelter.

He wrote about the homeless men he met there.

He wrote about his desire to use his college degree as a tool to succeed -
not a ticket to buy booze.

``It gave me a feeling of hope,'' he said. ``It was my way of saying, `I am
somebody. I'm more than a bunk number and a name. I can make the best of
this.' ''

Burns' journal ``Shelter: One Man's Journey From Homelessness to Hope'' is
soon to be published by the University of Arizona Press. It should be in
bookstores this fall.

The book is not particularly analytical or scholarly - and that's exactly
what attracted University of Arizona Press editor-in-chief Christine
Szuter, who picked up the manuscript one evening and read straight through

``It was compelling, it was interesting, it made you think about homeless
people differently,'' she said. ``It made you realize what it would be like
to be homeless.''

Burns conveys that by writing what homelessness looks like - the cacophony
of shelter life, the dirty clothes, the widespread contempt - and also what
it feels like.

``I feel discouraged as I look around the cluttered barracks,'' he writes.
``Homelessness is undeniable. Still, I have problems in accepting that I
have fallen this low.

``The oppressive environment on a daily basis, the day-to-day grind, gets
to me. Every day I face the constant noise, the bothersome loudspeaker, the
rules, the schedule, the strange people in and out. But if I can put up
with Navy boot camp, then I can put up with the shelter.''

To endure his eight-week shelter stay, Burns, now 39, consciously adjusted
his mind set from desperate drifter to curious observer. He eavesdropped on
intake interviews, watched people chat and fight, and casually got to know
his fellow homeless residents.

He straddled the line between unobtrusive and meddlesome, taking care not
to stare too long or push too hard. He did that by being himself -
articulate and affable, friendly enough to strike up a conversation with a
stranger but low-key enough to put even an angry misfit at ease.

Burns honed those social skills during his childhood, packed into a
three-bedroom South Phoenix house with his seven brothers and two sisters.
As the third-oldest kid, he learned a lot about child-rearing - and a lot
about addiction.

His mother, a kind woman who taught her children never to give up, died at
39; heavy drinking had destroyed her liver.

His abusive stepfather died of a suspected heroin overdose.

All seven of his brothers drank heavily and have been to jail. One of his
sisters drank for several years; the other was born with fetal alcohol

Burns drank, too - but those around him saw potential for much more.

``Even when he was a young boy he was a survivor,'' said Denita Cordalis,
Burns' fifth-grade teacher at South Phoenix's Sierra Vista Elementary.

Cordalis remembers the young Burns, whom she met during her first year on
the job, as a terror who nearly drove her from her chosen profession. But
she had a good feeling about the troubled kid.

``I knew he had the spunk to survive if he just got his act together,'' she

He graduated from high school and spent six years in the Navy, rising from
mess cook to ship's baker to a cushy gig cooking for officers and visiting

After a tough year running his own catering business in Northern
California, Burns moved back to Phoenix and went to college. He earned a
communications degree from Arizona State University in 1988 and went to
work as a substitute public school teacher.

Within a couple of years, he had accepted a long-term subbing job with a
group of unusually tough fifth-graders. It was then that his life began to

First, he injured his back trying to restrain a student who had gone
berserk and was throwing computers. Next, a fellow teacher borrowed Burns'
car at lunch one day and never came back.

He was in constant pain, severely burnt out and increasingly depressed.

Looking for relief, he started drinking heavily and dabbling in marijuana
and cocaine. His job performance plummeted. So he quit abruptly and bought
a one-way Greyhound ticket to Tucson - and the Primavera Shelter.

``My homelessness begins right there at that moment,'' he said last week,
sitting at a picnic table on the Primavera patio and remembering his time
there. ``My emotions are running every which direction, wondering, `How did
I end up like this?' ''

He was humiliated. But determined to rebound.

``I knew there was an ounce of hope somewhere in my body and I needed it
fast,'' he said. ``I had sunk so far.''

Before coming to the shelter, Burns believed ``the typical stereotype that
homeless people are lazy, they're bums, they don't want to work. They're
just blemishes on society.''

At Primavera, though, he saw despair and hope, crippling mental illness and
unmistakable potential, satisfaction with life on the streets and steely
determination to rejoin society. His writing helped him to see all that,
said Bonnie Demorotski, Primavera's former outreach director.

``He had a vision,'' she said, ``and that makes all the difference in the

Throughout his stay, Burns struggled with his sobriety, fully cognizant of
his alcoholism - even admitting in his journal that he was in denial - but
not yet ready to seek help.

He stayed sober throughout his 41-day stay, but started drinking again
shortly after moving into a downtown studio apartment. He eventually
entered a Veterans Administration substance abuse program and went to live
at the Tucson Alcoholic Recovery Home, where he spent more than three years
as resident, then cook, then assistant manager.

He moved out a month ago.

``It was time to re-enter the real world and try to win this time with all
the help I've obtained,'' he said.

These days, Burns keeps a constant focus on his sobriety. Even while
substitute teaching, he seeks out opportunities to talk with children about
the dangers of drugs and alcohol - and about homelessness.

He also tries to help others by serving on the board of directors of the
Primavera Foundation, the advocacy group that helped him pull his life

Writing, meanwhile, has become far more than a hobby for Burns. He writes
for the Arizona Informant, a newspaper for African Americans. He edits
``Sojourner,'' the local National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People newsletter. He is working on a book of

``My life today is not about worrying about my past but worrying about my
future and sticking with people who are winners,'' he said.

His former homelessness, he said, made him appreciate the mundane stuff of
life: a clean bathroom, a quiet night, a spicy meal. It also made him
realize that - even with his college degree, his military experience and
his current success - he's no different from the men he lived alongside as
they struggled to pull their lives together.

``All homeless people have a story to tell,'' he said. ``Mine is just one
that happened to get turned into a book.''

Here's a website with information on Tucson homeless resources.


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