For anyone else, it could have been just another day at work.
But as Ron Ackerman pulled his city truck into the park recently, the sun rising over
the horizon and a list of tasks before him, the job at hand— changing out old light fixture — became so much more.
It offered a way to change a man’s life.
Ackerman, a Navy veteran, was rebuilding his broken world after many years on the streets. He had been coaxed out of his car and into a shelter, then an apartment, with the help of Tempe police and the city’s homeless outreach team.
Next Ackerman landed a job through Tempe Works, a special jobs program launched by the city that had him cleaning park bathrooms and asking, always, what other work needed to get done.
In a few short months, Ackerman was crisscrossing the city to tend to whatever maintenance issues popped up in the parks. And to tend to his future.
“When you’re homeless you’re just stuck,” Ackerman said. “You may want to work or do something, but you can’t. How do you?”
That’s the question the city of Tempe set out to answer when it developed Tempe Works. The two-year pilot answer when it developed Tempe Works.
The two-year pilot program combines part-time city employment, housing and social services to assist people like Ackerman in ending their homelessness.
Making measurable progress
The idea was introduced by Councilmember Randy Keating and approved by the City Council in 2017. Tempe Works relies on a partnership among city staff, Tempe Community Action Agency, I-HELP and Corporate Job Bank. Earlier this year, the collaborative’ s first two participants were hired for public works-related jobs with the city of Tempe.
The program is part of Tempe’s ambitious goal to end homelessness through a wide range of support and solutions. To do this, Tempe takes a coordinated approach that includes multiple city departments and regional partners.
The City Council has directed additional funding to this effort and pursues policy-related solutions.
Tempe has been engaged in this intensified effort since 2016, focused on making measurable progress to address what is a pervasive, complicated, national issue in a compassionate way. The city has seen many successes with helping and housing individuals.
During the 2017-2018 fiscal year:
- The HOPE homeless outreach team secured permanent housing for 103 people in Tempe.
- A total of 22 families—including 55 children—were assisted with case management, housing assistance as available, financial coaching and childcare.
So far this year, HOPE employees alone have had meaningful interactions with more than 600 unduplicated homeless individuals to provide assistance with housing, securing benefits and more.
Behind these numbers are people like Ackerman.
Lifetime of complications
It was about 2 a.m. one night when a Tempe police officer approached his car in a grocery store parking lot. The vehicle was broken-down and stranded—the way Ackerman felt.
“Hi, how’s it going?” the officer asked Ackerman.
A simple question and a complicated answer. A lifetime of complications.
Ackerman doesn’t come across as one to make excuses for the way his life turned out, but there were tipping points. He said the first was dyslexia that went unaddressed grade after grade in school. “I wasn’t really set up for a path after high school,” he said.
He found one for himself in the Navy, traveling the world for four years. Then he forged another path opening his own commercial door company in California, he said.
The second tipping point came after a car accident that Ackerman said left him with painful injuries and a prescription for his downfall—OxyContin. When a doctor stopped prescribing it, Ackerman sought it out on the streets and later turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
“I was still trying to survive myself. I was taking the painkillers to work so I didn’t have withdrawals,” he said. “I was just listening to my doctor’s advice and everything went south.”
He lived with addiction for 12 years and eventually lost his business, his close relationships and the roof over his head. Ackerman made a last-ditch move to Arizona and entered rehab several times. Following the advice of the Tempe police officer, he made his way to Tempe Community Action Agency.
Through the nonprofit, Ackerman found temporary shelter and volunteer work to stay busy. He spent his days at the Tempe Public Library, and that’s where he faced a new crossroads.
One of the city’s homeless outreach specialists, Kelly Denman, spotted him at the library and offered help a few times getting permanent housing. Would he take it? After
many long years on the streets, he was ready.
New road ahead
Denman drove Ackerman to apply for subsidized housing and walked him through the process. She scouted apartments to find a good match for both Ackerman and a landlord. When it was time to sign a lease, Denman was there by his side.
Having a place to call home changed everything.
“It made me feel like a person again,” Ackerman said. “You feel like you’re worth nothing because you have nothing. It’s a hard path.”
Denman also had her eye on Ackerman for the Tempe Works program and he was eager to apply. He started out as a full-time temporary employee, on the job every day at 4 a.m. to clean the public restrooms in city parks. Denman had even helped find grant money to send him to work with a new pair of steel-toed work boots.
It didn’t take long for Ackerman to move from custodian to part of the team overseeing maintenance of park infrastructure citywide, everything from picnic tables to playgrounds to lighting.
“When he finished his route, he’d always say ‘Do you have anything else for me?’” said Public Works Supervisor Ruben Wilkinson Jr.
Today, Ron’s work is as varied as helping install a new drinking fountain, painting restrooms, making plumbing repairs, adding new outlet covers and putting in new LED light fixtures.
Ackerman is grateful for the 40-hour-a-week job, apartment and new-found independence. He has reconnected with family and looks to the future.
Part of that future, he said, is trying to help others who are experiencing homelessness. One day he got to talking with a man who had been on the streets for many years. As the man collected aluminum cans, Ackerman suggested he visit Denman. After a few conversations, the man did just that and found housing with Denman’s help.
“Ron walks around like the living proof that things can get better,” Denman said. “It’s beautiful to see that full circle moment.”
Ackerman calls his fresh start a “blessing.”
“I know this is my last chance. I won’t be able to do this again. I don’t have another detox in me,” Ackerman said. “I lost 12 years of my life. I told Kelly I wasn’t going to screw this up.”