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Church State Issues

Mixing government and religion at Sky Harbor Airport

Dec 27, 2010

By: Richard Ruelas\ 227.html

$72,000 worth of mixing government and religion at Sky Harbor Airport

Wings and a prayer: Airport minister, social worker quietly help troubled travelers

The Arizona Republic

Dec. 27, 2007 12:00 AM

Tucked away from the traffic jams, long lines and scurrying travelers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is a nondescript office that serves as a safety net for passengers.

Those who end up here are generally in distress. They have deeper concerns than a missed flight or errant luggage. The airport and airlines employ hundreds to deal with those common problems.

The people in this hard-to-find place deal with dilemmas one wouldn't think would reach the airport. Social problems like hunger, poverty and domestic violence.

It is here where Rebecca Martin serves as social worker and the Rev. Al Young serves as minister to a transient population.

"Just having a calm voice," Martin says, advising how she calms harried passengers. "Letting people know you understand how they feel helps."

Of the 41.4 million passengers who go through Sky Harbor each year, according to the city, only a tiny sliver, 200 to 300, reach Martin and Young's office tucked behind a bank of elevators in Terminal 4.

"When they're out of options, when they don't have a place to send a person, they're sending them to us," Young said.

On one recent morning, the two dealt with a homeless veteran, a family of four stranded without cash and a young man who walked into the office claiming hunger and poverty.

"I can't have bad days," Martin said, "I have to stay positive. When people come to you, they need something from you, and I have to give back."

Martin, hired in August, is the first full-time staff person devoted to passengers in distress at Sky Harbor.

Before, problems were mainly handled through Young and a volunteer chaplain.

When Young started the Sky Harbor interfaith chapel in 1988, he figured travelers would use it as a place of rest and meditation. Almost immediately, he found himself dealing with passengers needing a hotel for a night or food.

He got the airport signed up as a social-service agency under Traveler's Aid, an international network of organizations that, as the group's slogan says, provide "a helping hand along the way."

Through that Washington, D.C.-based group, he was able to start offering such things as discounted Greyhound bus tickets and phone calls for stranded passengers.

About nine years ago, Young said, he heard from a domestic-violence shelter. A woman needed help getting out of town. Young worked to get a bus ticket so she could get to family in another state.

Other such crisis calls kept coming over the years. Young looked for additional funding. He received some through The Arizona Republic's Season for Sharing holiday-giving program. But as the need continued, Young asked the city's aviation department for a full-time social worker.

The city approved a one-year trial run of the program in June 2006. This year, it approved the program for a three-year run. According to city documents, the program's budget cannot exceed $72,000 a year. The city's airport advisory board approved the contract unanimously.

Young said he gave the city statistics about the type of help given out at Sky Harbor. But probably more compelling was the city's own research into the programs at other airports.

"They confirmed for themselves there was a need for this type of assistance," Young said.

So much need

Martin, who has worked for 20 years helping domestic-violence victims and homeless people through a church ministry in Ohio, had the proper background of caring needed to fill the position, Young said.

Martin remembers the first domestic-violence case she dealt with. A woman loaded her three children and a single bag of belongings into her car and drove to the airport looking to flee a violent home. An airport Navigator, the purple-shirted volunteers who guide passengers through Sky Harbor, spotted the woman in obvious distress, trying to buy a ticket to Chicago, Martin said.

"They all came in crying," Martin said.

Martin helped the woman contact family, who wired the money for airplane tickets. Martin helped occupy the children's time during the hours-long wait. She also counseled and prayed with their mother.

"You just see so much here," she said.

Martin started her job just weeks before a distressed traveler died in the custody of airport police. Carol Gotbaum, a New York woman, had a reported meltdown Sept. 28 after missing a connecting flight to Tucson. It is just the kind of situation that the aid program was designed to help.

"Things unfolded so rapidly," Young said. "There wasn't an opportunity for police to get hold of us, to inform us that there was someone who might need our help."

According to Phoenix police, 25 minutes elapsed between when a ticket agent first called officers to report Gotbaum's erratic behavior and when officers found her dead in a holding cell, her restraint chain around her neck.

Young points out a final irony: The holding cell where Gotbaum died is directly below the chapel office.

Martin said it's unfair for people to judge the airport's safety net by the Gotbaum case.

"You're just judging that one incident. Look at all the people we help," she said. "They have no idea what goes on at the airport."

The publicity over the Gotbaum case did generate a call from another family who feared their relative would face a similar fate, Martin said.

The woman, in Phoenix for a funeral, had called her out-of-state relatives after landing at Sky Harbor to say that she couldn't find her luggage. She sounded hysterical on the phone and the family, knowing the woman was bipolar, called Martin for help.

Martin headed down to baggage claim to look for the woman, with no luck. She then put out a page for the woman and alerted other airport personnel. A Navigator found the woman, who had somehow made her way to another terminal.

"We helped her get where she needed to get," Martin said.

Homeless veteran

Not all of Martin and Young's work involves airport passengers in distress. On a recent morning, Martin dealt with a homeless veteran found wandering in a Phoenix park. The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center helped him locate a cousin in Deming, N.M., Martin said. She helped arrange a bus ticket for the man and saw him off at the Greyhound station.

Most people who come to Martin are referred. Busy days at the airport don't necessarily translate into busy days for her. Crises arrive on their own schedule.

One incident involved a man who gave his name as Patrick. He had just arrived from Connecticut and was hungry but had no money. His mother wasn't coming to get him until later that afternoon, and an airport worker pointed him toward the chaplain's office.

Though some of the man's story didn't add up, Martin still walked Patrick to an airport bakery for a meal.

Maybe Patrick was not on a flight, Martin said, but there was no doubt he was hungry.

"I don't pry unless I feel he's in danger," Martin said. If she saw him again in the next few days, she would refer him to some other agency to deal with his underlying problem, she said.

Maybe it's because the office is hidden away, but Martin and Young said they don't get a lot of walk-ins who might take advantage of the program. They have refused help to people they felt were looking for a handout rather than for emergency need, they said.

It seems it would be hard for the pair to say no, however, given that between their desks hangs a tapestry of St. Francis of Assisi.

"For most people," Martin said, "it's a humbling experience to say, 'I don't have any money. I need food.' "

Martin finds it spiritually and professionally fulfilling to help find comfort in such a bustling place. Before she worked there, she knew Sky Harbor as most might, as a place that breeds stress.

"Oh," she said, "I hated the airport."

Reach the reporter at richard. or 602-444-8473.