The New York Times
A Sandwich Shop, a Tent City and an American Crisis
Eli Saslow – March 19, 2023
PHOENIX — He had been coming into work at the same sandwich shop every weekday morning for the past four decades, but now Joe Faillace, 69, pulled up to Old Station Subs with no idea what to expect. He parked on a street lined with three dozen tents, grabbed his Mace and unlocked the door to his restaurant. He picked up the phone and dialed his wife and business partner, Debbie Faillace, 60.
“All clear,” he said. “Everything looks good.”
“You’re sure? No issues?” she asked. “What’s going on with the neighbors?”
He looked out the window toward Madison Street, which had become the center of one of the largest homeless encampments in the country, with as many as 1,100 people sleeping outdoors. On this February morning, he could see a half-dozen men pressed around a roaring fire. A young woman was lying in the street. A man was weaving down the sidewalk in the direction of Joe’s restaurant with a saw, muttering to himself and then stopping to urinate.
“It’s the usual chaos and suffering,” he told Debbie. “But the restaurant’s still standing.”
That had seemed to them like an open question each morning for the past three years, as an epidemic of unsheltered homelessness began to overwhelm Phoenix and many other major American downtowns. Cities across the West had been transformed by a housing crisis, a mental health crisis and an opioid epidemic, all of which landed at the doorsteps of small businesses already reaching a breaking point because of the pandemic. In Phoenix, where the number of people living on the streets had more than tripled since 2016, businesses had begun hiring private security firms to guard their property and lawyers to file a lawsuit against the city for failing to manage “a great humanitarian crisis.”
The Faillaces had signed onto the lawsuit as plaintiffs along with about a dozen other nearby property owners. They also bought an extra mop to clean up the daily flow of human waste, replaced eight shattered windows with plexiglass, installed a wrought-iron fence around their property and continued opening their doors at exactly 8 each morning to greet the first customer of the day.
Debbie arrived to help with the lunch rush, and she greeted customers at the register while Joe prepared tomato sauce and weighed out turkey for chef’s salads. Their margins had always been tight, but they saved on labor costs by both going into work every day. They remodeled the kitchen to make room for a nursery when their children were born and then expanded into catering to help those children pay for college. They kept making sandwiches for a loyal group of regulars even as the city transformed around them — its population growing by about 25,000 each year, housing costs soaring at a record pace, until it seemed that there was nowhere left for people to go except onto sidewalks, into tents, into broken-down cars, and increasingly into the air-conditioned relief of Old Station Subs.
Their restaurant was located in an industrial neighborhood that had always attracted a small number of transients. Over the years, Joe and Debbie came to know many by name and listened to their stories of eviction, medical debt, mental illness and addiction, and together they agreed that it was their job to offer not only compassion but help.
They had given out water, opened their bathroom to the public and cashed unemployment and disability checks at no extra cost. They hired a sandwich maker who was homeless and had lost his teeth after years of addiction; a dishwasher who lived in the women’s shelter and first came to the restaurant for lunch with her parole officer; a cleaner who slept a few blocks away on a wooden pallet and washed up in the bathroom before her shift.
But the homeless population in Phoenix continued to grow. Soon there were hundreds of people sleeping within a few blocks of Old Station, most of them with mental illness or substance abuse issues. They slept on Joe and Debbie’s outdoor tables, defecated behind their back porch, smoked methamphetamine in their parking lot, washed clothes in their bathroom sink, pilfered bread from their delivery trucks, had sex on their patio, masturbated within view of their employees and lit fires that burned down trees and scared away customers. Finally, Joe and Debbie could think of nothing else to do but to start calling police.
Within a half-mile of their restaurant, police had been called to an average of eight incidents a day in 2022. There were at least 1,097 calls for emergency medical help, 573 fights or assaults, 236 incidents of trespassing, 185 fires, 140 thefts, 125 armed robberies, 13 sexual assaults and four homicides. The remains of a 20- to 24-week-old fetus were burned and left next to a dumpster in November. Two people were stabbed to death in their tents. Sixteen others were found dead from overdoses, suicides, hypothermia or excessive heat. The city had tried to begin more extensive cleaning of the encampment, but advocates for people without housing protested that it was inhumane and in December the American Civil Liberties Union successfully filed a federal lawsuit to keep people on the street from being “terrorized” and “displaced.”
Shina Sepulveda had been living in the encampment for a few weeks or maybe for a few months. It was hard to know for sure, she said, because she had been experiencing delusions. What she remembered was escaping from a cult in Mesa, Arizona, building the first internet search engine, losing billions of dollars to a government conspiracy, cutting wiretaps out of her brain, retaking her dynastic name of Espy Rockefeller and then moving onto a sidewalk across the street from Old Station Subs.
For as long as she had been homeless, she tried to nap during the relative safety of the day and stay up late at night to help look over her small corner of the encampment. She put on makeup and sat down at a plywood desk, where a handwritten nameplate introduced her as “Doctor, Poet, Psychologist, Partner at Law,” and where in reality she was now the 47-year-old caretaker of a half-dozen people — because, even if many of her stories were fantastical, she had earned a reputation for being generous and kind and for knowing a bit about everything.
“Hey, Espy, can you help me?” Brandon Mack said as he walked over from his nearby tent. He lifted his shirt to reveal two stab wounds from a few days earlier. He had fought with a neighbor over a coveted corner spot on the sidewalk, walked to the emergency room, gotten 18 stitches and then returned to recover on a molding mattress in a partly burned tent.
Espy took out a pair of scissors, scrubbed them with hand sanitizer and started to cut away a few of his stitches. She wiped away the pus and blood with napkins, tossing them into the street. Then she turned her attention to the next person in need of help. Cecilia wanted soap, so Espy handed her a bar she had scavenged from the nearby shelter. C.J. was drunk and needed help getting into the street to go to the bathroom. A man known as K.D. was moving his tent down the sidewalk because he’d gotten into an argument with a neighbor who insulted his pit bull. “Nobody talks down to Dots,” K.D. said. “I’m ready to go off. I’m armed and dangerous.”
“I was a police officer,” Espy told him. “If you really have to shoot, don’t aim to kill. Just fire a warning shot.”
Joe came into work the next morning and saw a bag of drugs in the road, human waste on the sidewalk, a pit bull wandering the street and blood-soaked napkins blowing toward his restaurant patio, where he and Debbie were scheduled to meet with a real estate agent about the future of Old Station. Debbie still insisted that she was ready to be done with the restaurant. Joe didn’t want to run it without her, but he also didn’t want to walk away with nothing. They had spent the past several months exploring a compromise, seeing if they could sell the business and retire together.
“Are we getting any bites?” Joe asked the agent, Mike Gaida.
“Oh, yeah. I get calls every week,” Mike said, and he explained that at least 25 potential buyers had looked over the financials and recognized a strong family business for the reasonable price of $165,000. Several bailed once Mike mentioned the encampment, but at least a dozen potential buyers secretly came to check out the property. “Most of the time, they don’t call back,” Mike said. “If I track them down, it’s like, ‘God bless those people for staying in business, because I couldn’t do it.’”
“It’s taken years off my life,” Debbie said.
“For her it’s, ‘Get me out. We’ve got to sell, sell, sell,’” Joe said. “But we refused an offer for $250,000 eight years ago, and it keeps dropping. I don’t want to give this place away.”
“I get it,” Mike said. “If you were a half-mile in another direction, you’d be sitting on a million bucks. Instead, it’s, How can you dispose of it?”
A few days later, Joe arrived for work to the sound of a gunshot coming from across the street and a bullet pinging off a nearby fence. He hurried inside and called police. “Yeah, it’s Joe again, over at Old Station,” he said, and a few minutes later two police officers were walking the perimeter of his restaurant, searching for the bullet. Soon Debbie would be waking up and getting ready for work.
“What the heck am I going to tell her to keep her from losing it?” Joe wondered, and he began to rehearse the possibilities in his head. It was only one bullet. Nobody had gotten hurt. Police had come right away. The shooter wasn’t targeting the restaurant. The gunshot was random. It could have happened anywhere.
Joe went outside to get some air. K.D. was ranting on the sidewalk, banging his hand against a fence, contorting his fingers into the shape of a gun and then firing it off at the sky.
“This could be the last straw for her,” Joe said, and then he saw Debbie driving toward the parking lot, steering around K.D. and hurrying through the gate.
“Wow. Tough morning?” she asked.
He took her inside the restaurant while he tried to come up with the right words. It was only one shot. The restaurant was still standing. They’d run Old Station together for 37 years, and maybe they could hang on for a while longer. But instead Joe told her the only thing that felt true.
“The whole thing’s a disaster,” he said. “I get it. It’s OK. I understand why you’re done.”