Written by Ed Masley for the Arizona Republic
It was 2017 when two brothers started charming their way into all-ages shows at the Trunk Space, a nonprofit avant-garde arts venue housed in Grace Lutheran Church on North Third Street in Phoenix.
"They were 10 and 11 at the time," recalled Steph Carrico, who cofounded the Trunk Space in 2004. "They just kind of showed up and were asking a bunch of questions. We were like 'Where did these kids come from?'"
The boys managed to work out a deal where if they helped take out the trash or clean up afterward, they were allowed to watch the bands.
"So then they started showing up almost every night and we learned that they were homeless," Carrico recalled. "They were living with their mother, staying nearby. And it was something for them to do in the evenings."
The kids' bad situation got much worse
The Trunk Space has been temporarily closed since March because of COVID-19, but the boys stopped coming around before that.
When Carrico heard in late June that their mother had died, she couldn't stop thinking about them, wondering if they were safe.
"I was able to get a hold of someone who was in contact with them," she said, "and found out they were living in a motel with their guardian, who's 21."
After reaching out to other members of the Trunk Space board, Carrico started a GoFundMe page in late July, hoping to raise at least $500.
As she wrote in that initial post, "At the least, we'd like to be able to help them buy some new clothes, though it would be pretty fantastic if we were able to raise enough money to help them get established in more permanent housing."
They raised $1,000 in the first half hour.
"So I bumped the amount up to $5,000 and hit that in two days," she says.
By the time she shut off new donations, Carrico's GoFundMe page had raised $6,587, allowing the boys and the cousin who took them in, to get established in a new apartment.
The Trunk Space community stepped up to help
"It's really been a kind of shining light in this whole scenario," said Robbie Pfeffer, of Playboy Manbaby, a Trunk Space board member who often headlines show there.
"It kind of blew past anything that any one of us expected. It's just really cool to see a community gather around to help out people who legitimately need that help immediately. It's like wow, one thing that isn't awful news."
Carrico said the donations allowed them to pay rent in advance for a few months on the apartment, which the Trunk Space is helping them furnish. And their cousin has a job now.
"So hopefully, this will be sustainable for them," Carrico said.
She hasn't seen the boys since finding out their mother died, but she has been in contact with their cousin.
"She's just so relieved," Carrico said. "She's emailed and told me how grateful they are. I don't think the boys can really grasp quite how life-changing this hopefully is, but she definitely can."
The church has a history of helping homeless people
One thing that appealed to the Trunk Space board about moving to Grace Lutheran Church after leaving its longtime home on Grand Avenue in 2016 was the work the church does with people experiencing homelessness.
"Folks we knew from things like Food Not Bombs spoke really highly of the church's relationship with the unhoused community," said Connor Descheemaker, a former Trunk Space board member who now lives in Seattle.
"Housing Heat Respite for years, having breakfast service frequently and just being really good neighbors to folks who were unhoused."
To Pfeffer, the church "legitimately" does God's work.
"As a pretty avidly nonreligious person," Pfeffer said, "they've kind of given me a new perspective on what that entails. They're really there for that community, putting their money where their mouth is."
As a result of the church's commitment to serving that community, the Trunk Space volunteers were used to homeless people checking out the scene there by the time the brothers started showing up.
What wasn't quite so common was the level of enthusiasm for the music that these brothers displayed with such obvious joy.
And that enthusiasm was contagious.
Kids enjoyed the music most nights
"Whatever show was happening, they were just so excited to be involved and soak it up," Pfeffer said. "And getting to see the shows through their eyes gave me a new perspective on a process that I had been a part of for years."
Of course, the honest, unfiltered reaction of kids that age isn't always a five-star review.
Ryan Avery, a board member who often works the door, recalls the time they told the boys to go check out the band performing upstairs at a Trunk Space festival with stages on two levels,
"They came downstairs again after a few minutes and they were like, 'That was boring,'" Avery said with a laugh.
On another occasion, they said, "They were writing sentences down and asking me to read them out loud. They'd write 'I'm stupid' and hand me the paper and be like, 'Can you read this? What does this say?'"
That kind of goofy juvenile behavior helped endear them to the Trunk Space volunteers.
And it didn't hurt that, as Carrico said, "They were both really sweet."
The boys still had to follow rules
That doesn't mean they didn't sometimes need some parenting by proxy.
"We had to put in a lot of guidelines and make some rules," Carrico said. "And they didn't seem to just intuitively understand a lot of the rules but once we put them in place, they were really good about following them."
One rule was that they couldn't get into a show for free without running it past the promoter.
As Avery recalls, with a laugh, "It was always adorable to see these kids go up to whoever's booking the show and be like, 'Hey, can we see this rock 'n' roll show?' The look was always like 'Who are these kids? And why are they here?'"
It didn't take long for the brothers to build a rapport with the Trunk Space volunteers.
"It was just really cool to just have them coming in the space most nights," Descheemaker said.
"Sometimes they'd stick around. But sometimes they would just pop in and sort of go away like kids their age would just because they were like 'OK, this is weird.' But they were excited. They had tons of questions and just really made themselves at home."
On the rare occasion that the Trunk Space volunteers felt they needed a break, they knew exactly how to handle it.
"We would just tell them it was an acoustic show and they would leave," Carrico said, with a laugh.
To Descheemaker, the brothers were "every bit as much a part of the community at Trunk Space as any of the volunteers or performers or audience members during that time, in 2017, 2018."
How has Trunk Space been doing?
Despite not being able to host shows since March, the Trunk Space has been hanging in there, thanks in large part to Grace Lutheran Church.
"We're basically just covering our utilities while we're closed," Carrico said.
They also got a DIY Grant from Meow Wolf, an arts and entertainment group in Sante Fe, New Mexico. And Valley Bar hosted a Party with a Purpose to raise money for the Trunk Space right before everything closed.
That's allowed them to donate the money they've made on a series of Trunk Space Tuesdays livestreams to local artists that have been affected by COVID-19.
"Basically," Carrico said, "because of the generosity of the church, we've been able to pay it forward in a lot of ways, which has been great."