Helping Navajo Elders, Homeless Flagstaff Residents Survive The Northern Arizona Winter

By Ron Dungan
Published: Wednesday, December 30, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, February 23, 2021 - 1:10pm

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It’s the holiday season in northern Arizona, and so far, there hasn’t been a lot of snow. But nights are cold. From Flagstaff to remote stretches of the Navajo Nation, winter can be hard for the poor and the elderly. Fortunately, there are people who want to help. People like Henry Provencio, who works with the U.S. Forest Service in Flagstaff.

Provencio was working with the Navajo when he heard some disturbing reports from the reservation and took them to heart.

Flagstaff Shelter Services
Amy S. Martin
Flagstaff Shelter Services, which provides beds and other services for the homeless, is the only place some people can turn to during the cold winter months. It has seen its caseload increase during the pandemic.

“A large majority of the folks who live on the reservation depend on wood stoves, or wood heat to heat their houses. You know when you drive across the reservation it looks like a desert and it is a desert, but it gets awfully cold up there. Down into single digits,” Provencio said.

A lot of families used to put coal in their wood stoves.

It was readily available because there was a coal mine on the reservation.

But last year, the mine was shuttered, and people found themselves without coal to burn.

"Last year we saw articles where some of the elders, well, froze to death," Provencio said. "But also were resorting to burning clothes, to try to keep warm.”

"This is ridiculous that we have all these wood resources here and we’ve got folks less than a hundred miles away who are freezing to death."
— Henry Provencio

Provencio coordinates the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, a program to reduce wildfire risk. A big part of that means cutting trees.

“This is ridiculous that we have all these wood resources here and we’ve got folks less than a hundred miles away who are freezing to death,” he said.

He couldn’t do anything about the coal mine, but he could supply a new source of fuel. So he worked with conservation groups and private companies, who came up with the money and resources to transport the wood.

“When people are freezing to death, and burning clothes, give me a break, that’s ridiculous. We can do better,” Provencio said.

In Flagstaff, Ross Altenbaugh fights another battle against the cold. Housing is scarce in Flagstaff. It’s also expensive, even for a rental. There’s a local joke about living in Flagstaff: poverty with a view. But there’s another layer of poverty in Flagstaff: homelessness.

Downtown Flagstaff
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
Downtown Flagstaff.

“It’s not just cool here, it’s sub-zero temperatures some nights, and people die here at night if they sleep outside,” Altenbaugh said.

She runs a shelter that used to see about 200 people a day. Then COVID-19 struck. Flagstaff Shelter Services now sees about 350 people a day. But they’ve kept at it. Altenbaugh’s connection to the homeless is personal, because her mother was homeless.

“She was homeless for the first five Christmases of her life. She lived in the back of a car with her brothers and sisters and mom.”

Her mother later started a nonprofit to help the homeless, and Ross grew up watching her work.

“I grew up, honestly in this environment," she said. "Packing lunches and delivering them under bridges in Virginia, I mean when I was, you know, 10 years old.”

There were times she spent her mornings playing with homeless kids.

“I think I didn’t fundamentally understand why when the program would end on that Saturday morning, why I would get in the car and go home, and they would go nowhere,” she said.

"It’s not just cool here, it’s sub-zero temperatures some nights, and people die here at night if they sleep outside."
— Ross Altenbaugh

She was still in that world when she was a teenager.

“My first vehicle that I drove at 16 was a cargo van that smelled like bologna sandwiches. You know, like, it was wild to grow up in that environment but she helped so many people,” Altenbaugh said.

COVID-19 has been devastating for the shelter, even with government programs that have helped cushion the blow. The holidays are typically a rough time at homeless shelters, where most people don’t have strong family connections. But the news of a new vaccine gives her hope that next year will be better, because homeless shelters will be among the first to get the vaccine.

“That was the happiest moment," Altenbaugh said. "And I know it will be so much greater when people can start getting vaccinated on a large scale, but the idea that we can really start turning our attention to how we get people out of hotels and into housing, and starting really thinking strategically on how we take the next steps, that’s really exciting, and I’m looking forward to thinking in that way.”

For some people, the holidays aren’t really holidays. They’re just cold. COVID-19 has shined a light on who we are. In some cases, it has brought out the worst. In some cases it has brought out our best.

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