By Buddy Early, December 2019 Issue.
Arizonans are known for touting “eight months of beautiful weather” while other parts of the country are fighting off freezing temperatures. But those seasonal winter days when a light sweater is all that is required can and usually do turn cold and bitter overnight, especially for those without a roof over their head. The average overnight temperature for Phoenix’s coldest months is in the low 40s, and on many nights, it is not unusual for it to dip into the 30s. Phoenix has a fair amount of resources that offer assistance to its homeless population, but it’s impossible for them to meet all the needs.
Enter Dr. Brenda Combs, who for the last two decades has collected blankets each December to distribute to people sleeping on the street. While there is no set goal, she expects to collect over 1,000 blankets throughout each drive. Four years ago, her efforts were helped when The Rock, one of Phoenix’s top show bars, stepped up to involve the LGBTQ community. The culmination of this year’s drive will be Saturday, December 22, during The Barbra Seville Show at The Rock.
“This doesn’t end homelessness, I know that,” said Combs. “This is a band aid, but a band aid can heal.”
It’ a much-needed band-aid for Maricopa County’s homeless population, which numbers 25,832, according to the Phoenix Rescue Mission. The need for food and water, hygiene products, shoes, clothes, blankets and other basic items is year-round. Without them, the consequences can be dire.
Dr. Combs knows this all too well.
Over the course of 10 years on the streets of Phoenix Brenda Combs was stabbed, raped, beat up and hit buy a car. She overdosed on drugs more than once and attempted suicide. Her residence throughout most of those years was the 7th Avenue bridge south of downtown Phoenix. It provided her shelter from the sun, rain, and wind. After a while the location became a comfort to her, but not safe — for a homeless, black, female crack addict, nowhere on the street is ever safe.
Don’t assume to know Combs’ story and how she ended up in these circumstances. She grew up in a middle-class family, raised by parents with strong values and no vices; substance abuse wasn’t engendered in her. The short version of her descent into a nightmarish existence is that she fell in with the wrong crowd while attending Northern Arizona University. The longer version includes years of incredibly low self-esteem, fueled by episodes of bullying by peers and adults, which led to her choosing a path of destruction for herself.
“That bullying took away my confidence,” Combs stated matter-of-factly. “I didn’t feel good about myself. I didn’t love myself.”
With no confidence and no self-love, it wasn’t long after her introduction to the NAU party scene that she graduated to cocaine and crack.
“Before I knew it, I was a full-fledged drug addict and I found myself homeless,” said Combs, who lived in her car until she was forced to sell it. “I made my way to Phoenix and found myself in the park with 1,500 other homeless people.”
From there she endured a decade of a harrowing life on the streets.
It took only one circumstance on a scorching summer day to prompt Combs to seek a change.
“I woke up in an alley behind a dope house,” she revealed, “and someone had stolen my shoes.”
Shoes were important to people like Combs.
“As a homeless woman, you could run, get to shelter, go to a soup kitchen. … Without shoes, in Phoenix, during the summer, you’re a victim.”
Combs figured that would be the day she died. Miraculously, she made it a half-mile away to the park, but with 2nd and 3rd degree burns on her bleeding, blistering feet.
“When I got the park that day I literally fell to my knees and begged God.”
She knew what she needed to do. Combs immediately turned herself in for outstanding warrants, after which her probation officer inexplicably took pity on her.
“She believed in me even though I didn’t believe in myself.
I went into my 13th program … but this time I had a change of heart and a change of mind.”
A year after entering that rehabilitation program Combs returned to the 7th Avenue bridge. She found “Pops,” a man she had come to know as family. She helped him with shoes, food, and hygiene products. That’s when her role as homeless advocate took off. Other homeless people spotted her and started asking for help. She started her foundation, called Finding My Shoes, and every two weeks she would take her retail paycheck to dollar stores and Goodwill, then make deliveries to places she knew she’d find homeless folks.
Combs went back to school, earning first a Bachelor’s in Human Services, then a Master’s in Special Education and finally a Doctorate. She did this while working multiple jobs, including as a server at “Gay Denny’s,” where she would become acquainted with Phoenix’s LGBTQ community. She bought her first home (which she eventually turned into a sober living home for women), wrote a book, got married and had a son, adopted three other children (from Chicago, Ethiopia, and Eritrea), and became an in-demand public speaker.
She still collects shoes and blankets for the homeless.
Richard Stevens, also known as Barbra Seville, had been acquainted with Combs for several years before learning about the annual blanket drive.
“It was so freaking inspirational,” he said. “I wanted her to know she was ‘heard’ by me, so I asked her if (The Rock and The Barbra Seville Show) could do a blanket drive to support her efforts.”
Combs was taken aback when she got a message from Stevens in her inbox.
“The fact that she reached out to me … I was honored,” said Combs, acknowledging she had been going to drag shows in Phoenix for years with her girlfriends. “As women we feel safe and always have a good time. It’s always a good show.”
Combs said the involvement of the folks at the Rock has sparked an interest in her foundation and efforts by other members of the community.
“This is the fourth year we will participate,” added Stevens. “It’s a tradition now. People ask me when we’re doing it.”
For information on this year’s blanket drive, including locations for drop-off, visit brendacombs.com. The culmination of this year’s drive will take place on Dec. 22 at The Rock, 4129 N. 7th Ave., Phoenix, during The Barbra Seville Show.