Police officer Marc Valenzuela was on patrol in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, in early 2016, when he spotted a homeless individual. The concerned cop considered it his duty to stop and check on the drifter. Shortly after, Valenzuela knew he just had to act and made a decision on his feet. But what happened next drew a crowd on the city street and attracted no small amount of attention online…
Arizona – The Grand Canyon State – has a vast homelessness problem. Indeed, local charity Phoenix Rescue Mission puts the number of people living there without a permanent address at one in every 184. This equates to 36,000 souls – and most of them are in just one county, which encompasses the city of Phoenix.
Maricopa County in the south-central part of the state is the fourth most populated in the U.S. Working on official figures, the Phoenix Rescue Mission estimates that about 61 percent of Arizona’s population reside in the county. But it also says that the area accounts for some 71 percent of the state’s homeless population. And Arizona’s problem with unhoused citizens does not look like it will get better anytime soon. In fact, official figures state that the headcount of unsheltered people living in Maricopa County is more than twice as large as it was in 2014.
According to the local homeless shelters, every year almost 600 displaced individuals in the county report they are homeless due to being released from prison with nowhere to go. Furthermore, it is thought that half of the Maricopa County vagrant population are struggling with substance abuse or mental health problems. And it seems that the seriousness of the state’s homelessness issue is only exacerbated by Arizona’s notoriously hot climate.
In fact, 42 percent of the state is considered to be desert country, and temperatures in Phoenix during the summer months frequently rise to be well in excess of 100°F. The unforgiving climate does not get much cooler at night, and this can pose a serious risk to the state’s unsheltered. In 2016, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health recorded 130 heat-related deaths, and more than one-third of these victims were homeless.
But, of course, millions of people have to live and work in this punishing climate, and one of them is Marc Valenzuela. He is an officer with the City of Phoenix Police Department and found himself on patrol on Friday, January 15, 2016. Even in that winter month, Arizona can see temperatures climb to 72°F. And it was a warm day when Valenzuela passed by 27th Avenue and McDowell Road in downtown Phoenix and spotted something from his patrol car.
The policeman pulled his vehicle over and went to speak to a dirty and disheveled looking elderly man. Valenzuela learned that the old guy was homeless, and after they had been speaking for a while, the officer spotted something else. The down-and-out was braving the hot city streets with no shoes.
Subsequently, Valenzuela spoke to a crew from 12 News, broadcast by the NBC-affiliated local TV channel KPNX, about the exchange. The patrolman said that the anonymous man in question was wearing socks that day. However, they were filthy and falling apart and the poor guy’s toes were sticking through them. The concerned cop said he felt “bad” for the civilian and wanted to help out in some way.
Apparently, Valenzuela’s first thought was to go to a nearby store and buy the unfortunate individual a pair of shoes. So the cop duly dispatched himself to a downtown footwear outlet with the man’s measurements and took a look around. But, unfortunately, the officer came away empty handed – the store was right out of shoes in the correct size.
Thwarted in doing his good deed for the day, Valenzuela suddenly remembered that he already had a pair of shoes in his patrol vehicle. The officer had very recently purchased the kicks to give to his son but had not passed them over yet. However, by happy chance, the brand-new items were in the vagrant’s size.
Valenzuela did not hesitate to offer his son’s shoes to the homeless male, who gratefully accepted the gift. The benefactor then got the down-and-out to sit in the rear of the police hatchback while the cop knelt down and helped him to put the box-fresh footwear on. And a group of pedestrians gathered around to watch the small but touching moment of generosity.
But they were not the only ones to bear witness to the humble gesture. Raymond Celaya saw what was happening and decided to film the act of kindness to share on his YouTube channel, Hard2PleAZ Entertainment. “That just shows exactly how much our officers serve Phoenix and help the community and also protecting the community,” Celaya says in the video. “So I just thought I’d post this and let everybody know.”
Other eyewitness voices in the video are heard backing up Celaya’s assertion. One points out that “a lot of people don’t see” these kind of altruistic actions very often – but, of course, this does not mean that they do not happen. At the end of the clip, Valenzuela is shown placing an arm on the elderly vagrant’s back and helping him walk away from the patrol car in his new shoes. Before he quietly heads off, the officer is overheard telling the old man, “Don’t worry about it.”
Valenzuela later revealed that the down-and-out had wanted to reimburse him for the shoes with the small amount of cash that the homeless old man had on his person. “He was just very thankful. He choked me up a little bit,” the cop admitted to the 12 News cameras.
Nevertheless, the officer had a very gracious and heartwarming response to the grateful vagrant’s offer. “I could see a little bit of money in his pocket, he had some dollar bills and some change,” Valenzuela continued. “He wanted to pay me for the shoes, and I just told him they were a gift from God.”
Celaya’s clip was shared on his YouTube channel five days after it was filmed in January 2016. Since that time, the footwear footage has been viewed more than 930,000 times. Commenters on the video-sharing website praised Valenzuela for his efforts, with one viewer describing him as “awesome.”
Indeed, the overwhelming opinion seemed to be that more members of the police force should aspire to be like Valenzuela. “God bless you officer,” one YouTube user wrote. “Thank you for your daily sacrifice and your kind warm-heart gesture!” Another added, “What goes around comes around. I wish that more people would be that way.”
Valenzuela was quick to point out to 12 News that the police regularly do similar good deeds for local citizens – it was just that this particular act had been captured on video. Indeed, the year before the Phoenix episode, the story of a California cop went viral after he bought shoes for a destitute teenager whose feet were burning. Also in 2015, a policeman in Florida purchased some sneakers as a Christmas gift for a homeless and shoeless man.
Later in 2016, Valenzuela made the news again when he was involved in a shootout with a suspect. The officer was shot in the arm attempting to apprehend an armed man who had allegedly just killed his girlfriend. Valenzuela was treated for his injuries and in August 2017 received a Top Cops award from the National Organization of Police Organizations for his valor. In addition, Valenzuela was also named Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by emergency services advocacy group the 100 Club.
As we have seen, Valenzuela has been much admired for his thoughtful actions with the homeless man. But the modest officer insisted it was just a small gesture. “It doesn’t take much to show a little bit of kindness and give a complete stranger something,” he told 12 News. “We all have the means to do that.”