Former Men’s Shelter Participant Gives Back As Volunteer

“Every single time that I drive and I see a homeless person, I wish I could go click [he snapped his fingers] and nobody would be homeless again,” said Manny Roca-Ekonen. “My heart goes out to them because I’ve been there.”

Manny knows all too well that poverty and hard times don’t come little by little. They seem to come all at once and dominate your life. 

After immigrating to the U.S. during his teenage years, he graduated from high school and began working, mainly in call centers.  

In 2004, Manny was living the American dream. He had worked his way up from call center associate to senior escalation representative to financial services at Receivable Management Systems, taking care of accounts throughout North America. But, one day, that all came crashing down as his entire team was laid off. 

“I had a convertible and truck and everything,” he said. “And all of a sudden, poof! There goes my job, my convertible, my everything.”

After losing his job and struggling with anxiety and stress disorder, he lost his housing and began traveling around Tucson in his truck. He would go without food for a couple of days at a time, relying on places that gave out free sandwiches and other items. 

Manny was devastated. It was bad enough that he was losing his job, his car and his housing, but the thing that stuck with him the most – and still does – was his inability to take care of his daughter. 

“I wasn’t going to be able to provide because of my homelessness,” he said. “And that hit me because it’s my daughter.” 

Then, he heard from a friend about a shelter called Gospel Rescue Mission, where he found temporary respite,  food, and other necessities. ” Not long after his stay began, his time there came to an end and he was told to leave. 

Back on the streets, Manny would sleep anywhere he could in his truck, often getting kicked out of parking lots.

“They would just look at me and avoid me,” he said. “I went to a church and here I am trying to seek God and find a way out, and a family looks at me, gets up and moves across the aisle. And I went like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ If I would’ve dressed nicely, etc., no problem. But such a rejection and I am a human being. I’m a living being. I am an American citizen.” 

After hearing from a friend about Primavera’s Men’s Shelter, Manny decided to check it out. There, he found more stability and consistent shelter, but his time was not without hurdles and distractions. His circumstances were testing him and he struggled with anger.

He sought counseling services through COPE Community Services, Inc., a Tucson-based, private, nonprofit healthcare organization “offering innovative solutions for behavioral and physical healthcare, wellness, and recovery to individuals and families.” 

COPE’s counselors helped him face his problems and realize that he didn’t have to hide all his pain by being the toughest guy in the room, he said.

After two years in therapy at COPE without a place to call home, he was finally able to get off the streets and into an apartment. He had regained his sense of worth and felt that he was once again somebody who could contribute and have a positive impact. 

“It gave me worth,” Manny said. “It made me feel that I am somebody who can contribute and I don’t have to live in the streets.” 

Now, 20 years after falling into poverty and homelessness, Manny is able to reflect on what Primavera means to him and what he is able to tell the people experiencing homelessness that he interacts with. 

“My point of start was Primavera because they offered a step outside of my so-called sufferings,” Manny said. “To me, Primavera is like a second home because it’s like a child that left home but always comes back. And I love the guys. I love every single homeless participant that lives there, all counselors, all the directors in there, because they are there to get you out of the streets. And that’s what I tell them.”

Today, Manny has teamed up with Shelly and Robert Hoffman of “To Be Free Ministries” to provide meals for several organizations, including Primavera Foundation, to offer hope and support to those experiencing homelessness. 

Manny says that since he retired, he’s been sending his daughter money for her phone, taking her out to eat, and giving her everything he can.

“It hurt not being able to provide for her,” he said. “That’s what life on the street does for you. It incapacitates you.” 

But, Manny knows there’s a way out, and he spreads the message however he can. 

“Lately, every Sunday, we bring people to church, not only just to hear the word of god, but to show them there’s a way out,” he said. “There’s another life.”

Now that he’s made it out of poverty and found stability in his life, he understands that he has a unique perspective to offer.

“Go for the program and stick to it, no matter how much it hurts,” Manny said. “Because there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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