It was another cold night. Romonia "Mona" Dixon and her family were sleeping on the streets again. The shelters were full, and there was nobody to ask for favors. Dixon laid her head on a piece of cardboard, which was the only thing separating her head from the lifeless, dirty pavement.
From ages 3 to 13, she lived on the streets with her mother, her younger brother and her older sister. By day, she went to school, got good grades, made friends — but by night, she worried where her family would sleep. Where they would eat. What would happen next.
Ten years after her family left the streets, Mona Dixon became a mentor to youth at the Boys and Girls Club of the East Valley, an Arizona State University Barrett, The Honors College graduate and a renowned motivational speaker.
According to a recent Arizona Department of Economics Security report, there are approximately 25,832 homeless people living on the streets of Arizona. These subpopulations in Tempe and other cities throughout Maricopa County account for 61 percent of the total state homeless population.
But, there are those who are lucky enough — those who are able to receive help and persevere to get back on their feet — such as Dixon and her family.
Being a member of a homeless family, Dixon’s childhood was full of uncertainty, stress and struggles.
“It was rough, and I can’t say that I was always as optimistic as I am now,” Dixon says. “My mom tried to make our life seem like an adventure to distract us from how bad it really was. But somehow, she managed to raise us. I kept working hard in school, and it paid off.”
Before living in United Methodist Outreach Ministries (UMOM) and Section 8 Housing, Dixon and her family had no guaranteed place to sleep any given night, on nights when shelters were full and the family was forced to sleep on the streets, Dixon’s mother told her children they would be “spending the night under the stars.”
During those nights under the stars in San Diego, Dixon and her family relied on the kindness of others to survive. Most of the time while Dixon and her siblings were in school, her mother would wait in lines at food kitchens, The Salvation Army, local fire departments and other community organizations in order to ensure that they had their next meal and that they were provided for. She and her family spent much of their time waiting their turn to be helped; they were one of many families living on the streets.
“I knew we didn’t live like my friends did, I never told them to come over to my place to hang out or anything," Dixon says. "Some nights I would cry and just hope that tomorrow would be better. My faith in God is what got me and my family through it all."
The instability of Dixon's home life lead to early struggles in her academic life.
It was hard enough for her to focus on a prompt or a math problem in the classroom, but it was even more stressful to think about all of that while wondering where her next meal would come from. Despite the stress, Dixon continued to put forth her best efforts in school, and with the help and patience of her family, teachers and everyone who helped her, she blossomed academically.
Only Dixon’s closest friends knew about her living situation. She seemed to almost like it that way; she didn't want an excuse to not succeed. Dixon cites her mother and her mentors at the Boys and Girls Club as those who helped instigate her success.
“Ever since I was little, my mom told me about how I needed to go to college, and she helped me set goals in my life,” Dixon says. “If it wasn't for her pushing me and the help I received from my tutors at the Boys and Girls Club, I would be in a very different place. I can't thank them enough. I feel so grateful for having such a strong group of people to support me.”
Dixon involved herself with the Boys and Girls Club by participating in the after school program after a stranger paid her membership fee. It was that act of kindness that changed the trajectory of Dixon's young life. She spent time at the center participating in after school programs every day. It was at the Boys and Girls Club where she would meet some of her lifelong friends and mentors who helped her succeed.
She was a member of the club for four years before being nominated to compete for college scholarship money and going through a series of leadership competitions sponsored by the club. Dixon won her local competition, the state competition, regionals and so on until she eventually competed in the national competition.
After dozens of interviews, she earned her title as the 2010-11 National Youth of the Year, a title millions of youth in Boys and Girls Clubs across the country dream of. After winning all of those competitions, including her title at nationals, Dixon earned over $100,000, which she used toward her undergraduate degree in business management from ASU and Barrett, The Honors College, as well as her master's in communication.
"Winning National Youth of the Year was an incredible experience," Dixon says. "I was totally overwhelmed. I met with Denzel Washington (who was a member of the club and now helps promote it), President Obama and so many people who were happy to meet me and see me succeed. I had to remind myself that all of it was actually happening."
But, her success didn't come without temptations, situations that would have derailed her path to success.
"There was still temptation to do bad things," Dixon says. "There were kids who would make wrong choices like not study enough, do drugs, involve themselves with the wrong people ... I stayed away from that. I could have done those things; I had opportunities to, but I didn't. I had too much to live for to just throw it all away."
Dixon's tale is very much a Cinderella story. She knows that, and she acknowledges not everyone can have the same opportunities she has received. Her life trajectory has not always been as controlled as it is now. Whether Dixon is lucky or divinely blessed, she says it doesn’t matter: She still continues to give back to others she sees and encourages everyone to do the same.
“If everyone made an effort, I do think we could solve the problem that is homelessness,” Dixon says. “Even the smallest thing like a smile or asking them how their day is, anything to remind them that people care is a powerful thing. Maybe it’s a lack of empathy, maybe it’s the way we view the problem. Either way, the problem is still here and it hasn’t gone away.”
A Different Perspective
The "problem," as Dixon calls it, is ever-present on the streets of Tempe. Anyone walking on Mill Avenue can see that — people with makeshift beds and asking for spare change are all over.
Sitting on Mill Avenue is Brennan McFadden, a 47-year-old homeless man, sitting with his arms crossed, wearing gym shorts and a black cotton shirt.
McFadden says he was an IT field engineer for 20 years before he ran into legal trouble and later became homeless. After he was fired for being late, he says he was evicted from his apartment and received a trespassing charge in his own residence. He claims he was removed from his residence for giving shelter to a homeless couple and their dog, as the complex had a strict no-pet policy.
“So, one thing spirals out of control to another." McFadden says. "I’m renting a car at that moment, I’m out of work for a week going through jail for this, and now I don’t have money to rent a car for another week. Now I’m out of work; now I have to do something else and save up $1,000 and buy a vehicle outright and start from scratch over again."
McFadden failed to mention his criminal record in its entirety. A search in the Maricopa County Superior Court website showed McFadden was arrested for two aggravated DUIs, drug paraphernalia possession and shoplifting charges. He now has a failure to appear warrant for skipping a hearing regarding the shoplifting charges.
For months, McFadden says he was unable to produce funds for state identification and that the post office failed to mail him his identification five times to an address he specified as a place to receive mail; usually it was a friend’s house. He says he needs to apply for jobs and get back on his feet.
From time to time, he says he gets a call for an odd job, but he won’t be getting calls for a while. McFadden says his phone was stolen from his bag while he was sleeping earlier this month. Stolen items and other homeless-on-homeless crime is common, McFadden says. Because of this and other incidents over the past few months, he says he has developed a “trust nobody” attitude toward the world around him. He says his goal for each day is to simply survive it.
One in 184 people in Arizona are homeless, according to figures cited by the Phoenix Rescue Mission. There are many people walking the streets of Tempe just like McFadden — those who are capable of working but struggle to do so either because of a lack of resources or lack of faith in themselves.
“I hope this doesn’t happen to you or anyone you know,” McFadden says. “If your life goes down the drain and you reach out to family or friends for help, they may help you at first. But that eventually stops at a certain point, and people begin to surprise you and make excuses, slowly pushing you away. It hurts.”
He admits the city of Tempe and nonprofits do offer help, but says he is frustrated at how limited that help can be. As a homeless freelance IT worker, McFadden has to be available during some hours when he would have to otherwise waste sitting and waiting for a spot in a shelter.
One shelter McFadden mentioned by name was the Phoenix Rescue Mission, an organization in the Phoenix metro area that provides emergency services, recovery programs and job assistance to those who are homeless or are recovering drug addicts.
Nicole Pena, director of marketing and public relations for Phoenix Rescue Mission, responded to McFadden's concern directly and says McFadden's day-by-day and job-by-job approach is not an effective strategy to recovering from his situation.
"We do not have a wait for services," Pena says. "We have emergency shelter beds available, and check-in begins at 3 p.m. each day. The cornerstone of our programs are long-term residential addiction recovery for the homeless and near homeless. ... Taking a temporary job here and there does not provide stability and end homelessness for (McFadden)."
However, Pena says once spots in the shelter are filled and once those services are being fully used, people do wait for spots to open up and vacancies tend to vary by day.
Stuck in an awkward sort of limbo, hopping back and forth from short-term shelters to streets, McFadden says he will continue to take freelance tasks and save money for identification and a car with insurance.
“Just remember: You could be me when you’re older,” McFadden warned. “It can happen when you least expect it. If you slip up once, your life could change in an instant. It’s hard to get back on your feet, but I’m trying.”
But for Dixon, her life on the street actually propelled her to where she is today.
She used her journey of struggle and success to start a motivational speaking circuit, to inspire youth in valley high schools.
With her job at the Boys and Girls Club and her motivational speaking circuit , Dixon has assumed the role as a professional role model, a mentor, a beacon of hope for those who live on the streets. In her mind, she says she is living the dream: getting paid to help others and help change their lives for the better.
The rest of Dixon's family is also better off. Her mother, Wakonda, works as a crossing guard for the Tempe Elementary School District; her older sister, Victoria, works two jobs and provides for herself; and her younger brother, Joseph, is a freshman at ASU studying tourism development and management. Despite a near storybook ending for her and her family, Dixon says she will never forget what they went through and will always count her blessings.
“There were definitely times when we could have become homeless again,” Dixon says. “And that's one thing I keep in the back of my mind: It can happen again. I do everything I can to make sure that won't happen to me. And to think I might raise a family of my own under a roof, unlike how I grew up, is an incredible feeling.”
When recalling the countless times she has met homeless people, Dixon is brought to tears. She often remembers their names, their faces, what they wore; every detail of these people is burned into her mind. Dixon says the most important thing anyone can do to help is to simply give what one can, even if it’s just a smile.
“I always try to give what I can to these people because more often than not, they need it more,” Dixon says. “If they need money, I give them what I have. If they need help finding services, I pull out my phone and look it up for them. If I have nothing, I will simply smile, maybe ask how their day is going and talk to them.”
The greater problem, she says, a problem greater than a lack of resources for some, is a lack of empathy and compassion from the public. Sometimes Dixon is frustrated with the way homeless people are viewed: It is as if they are a problem instead of people with problems.
Dixon stresses that no two stories of homelessness are exactly alike. Thus, she says that it's silly to think there is an ultimate solution to dealing with homelessness. Sometimes, she says she becomes frustrated and angry that not all of these people can receive help, especially when some are fully capable of working.
“I'm a very optimistic person, and I do believe we can solve homelessness,” Dixon says. “I don't know how it will be done. Whether we need more services or need to treat the problem entirely differently — I don't know. But I do not like how I see some people treat others. We need to remember that we could be in their place at any time.
"Wouldn't you want someone to help you if you were in their place?”