photo courtesy Cloud Covered Streets

Missives of Mercy

Written by Nicki Escudero Category: Valley News Issue: March 2016
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Phoenix-based nonprofit Cloud Covered Streets delivers hope in the form of handwritten letters to the homeless.

It’s midday on a Wednesday in central Phoenix, and Robert Thornton is packing his truck full of boxes of T-shirts and socks, bags containing toiletries, hand-knit scarves from a local donor, homemade cookies and myriad handwritten cards. It’s almost Christmas, and the goods are gifts for those living on pavements around the Valley.

Thornton and volunteer Brie Marok travel to a park near McDowell Road and Seventh Street, where they introduce themselves to a man named Tony who’s laying on the grass. Tony has been homeless for the past two weeks since leaving a church shelter. He smiles at the holiday card in the care package the pair has given him. “I needed socks, so I’m going to put those on,” he says.

Thornton will meet 10 more homeless Phoenicians this day, part of his work as the founder of a nonprofit called Cloud Covered Streets. Established in 2015, the charity is affiliated with his Paper Clouds Apparel company, formed in 2007. Each Paper Clouds Apparel product is designed by someone with special needs, and sale proceeds go back to a cause relating to the artist. As a clothing company owner, Thornton saw a direct way to help those in Phoenix get fresh apparel.

“The first time we went out, it changed my life,” says Thornton, 38, who lives in Phoenix. “We gave [a homeless man] a shirt and a letter and then saw some other people and handed out shirts to them. By the time we came back, [the first man we encountered] had his head in his hands and was crying. I thought I would never forget that moment.”

Coupled with clean clothing, kind words were just as vital for Thornton’s new nonprofit. “When I read a letter, it means a lot to me,” Thornton says. “I couldn’t imagine what it would mean to someone on the streets to hear someone cared about them.”

Some of the letters are works of art themselves. From elementary school students in Kentucky, to single mothers in Ohio, to Cloud Covered Streets fans in New York and Florida, to people who have also been on the streets, Thornton receives manila envelopes full of cards for the cause. Examples include handmade drawings with the words, “Don’t worry if Plan A fails – there are 25 more letters in the alphabet,” and messages saying, “May God bless you with whatever comes your way – you’re special.” Sentiments like these often cause recipients to cry and hug Thornton and Marok, which is why taking the time to get to know those they impact is important to the duo.

“I think it gives us a sense of purpose,” Marok, a 27-year-old Scottsdale resident, says. “I don’t think there’s enough focus on other people. Everyone is so caught up in their day-to-day lives that they forget there are people outside their world.”

The Cloud Covered Streets mission has branched out to Austin, Texas, where KIND Snacks brand ambassador Ash Hannig, a friend of Thornton’s, has taken on a similar routine, giving out extra Paper Clouds Apparel gear and nutritious snacks to the homeless in Austin. One individual who greatly impacted Hannig is Cowboy, an injured veteran with five children he says he has no way to contact. Hannig’s visit helped lift his spirits.

“He was very appreciative for the letter of hope, because it’s something tangible, something you can hold and re-read when you need it the most,” Hannig says. “He will keep that letter forever. He said it’s not just us coming out and giving free things – it’s us caring about them.”

“One of the coolest things for me has been meeting these people and learning their stories,” Thorton says. “To feel human is something that’s very important.”