“The mail must go through.”
That old Disney children’s song with those words in the chorus keeps playing in Lisa Dembowski’s head as she thinks about the U.S. Postal Service, and the role it plays for the country.
Dembowski, the education director of the Postal History Foundation, based in Tucson, knows how hard letter carriers work. No matter the weather, the circumstances, the obstacles — the mail must go through.
“It’s always expected that no matter what, we will get this through to you. So if there’s some catastrophe yesterday, we’re still going to try to get the mail to you today,” she said.
As the Postal Service, and changes within its operations, have taken center stage in politics this month, the critical role the mail plays has become a rallying cry for many. For those who rely on it, the constant news about the Postal Service has reminded them of its importance.
Problems surfaced after Louis DeJoy, who was appointed as postmaster general in May, began making operational changes that have resulted in some mail delays. DeJoy has defended the changes as necessary to ensure the service’s financial health.
But some have accused President Donald Trump, who has frequently voiced opposition to voting by mail, of trying to hamper the Postal Service in advance of the November election. DeJoy said he would halt additional operational changes until after the election.
The politicking around the Postal Service has confused many. The American public largely views the mail favorably, as a public good, and a noncontroversial part of daily life.
For people experiencing homelessness, the post office at the Human Services Campus in Phoenix is a lifeline providing something they don’t have, but need to survive: an address.
For small businesses, the consistent pricing and reliability of the Postal Service means they can stay afloat during a pandemic.
For those who are incarcerated, the Postal Service connects them to loved ones and services in the outside world.
For a small town like Munds Park, the post office is a community gathering place that delivers necessary medications, bills and checks.
For most Maricopa County voters, the mail is how they cast their ballots.
For all of us, the Postal Service brings prescriptions, critical paperwork, letters from loved ones, paychecks, packages, and yes, junk mail.
The Postal Service helped build the country, Dembowski said. Whenever a new settlement was started, they asked for a post office to communicate with their families across the country, she said. A public mail service is a mainstay in most countries, she said.
“It’s just part of life, for everybody around the world,” she said.
Mail means: Access to vital documents
Greg Doepker’s Social Security card got stolen about a month and a half ago, along with his other belongings.
Getting a replacement wasn’t easy. Social Security offices are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the process to get a new card is done online and by mail.
Doepker, who is currently homeless, first tried to use the address at a church he was attending to apply for the replacement card, but the Social Security office said it recognized the address as a business and couldn’t send it there.
“Where do I go to get mail?” he said.
A replacement card arrived after about a month of waiting, landing at the post office at the Human Services Campus, which provides shelter and other services for people experiencing homelessness in Phoenix.
The campus has the only post office in the country specifically designated for people experiencing homelessness, according to its website.
The post office provides an address for people who currently have none.
At a window surrounded by blue and red paint on the Brian Garcia Welcome Center, the campus’ “front door,” people walk up, show identification and receive any mail they have waiting for them.
Inside, white crates that say “United States Postal Service” hold mail sorted by name, with colorful dividers marking whose mail is where. Packages sit on shelves under a long counter in the narrow room that is this post office.
Doepker gets all kinds of vital mail at this post office: unemployment insurance, food benefits, health care documents.
“Right now, it’s invaluable. If I didn’t have that, I’d be screwed,” he said.
The Human Services Campus has a contract that allows the site to provide its address to people experiencing homeless and collect their mail, said Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of the campus. More than 5,000 people last year received mail through this service, she said.
Until about two months ago, the mail was delivered directly to the campus, which then would sort it. But the mail carrier said they were no longer able to bring it there because of COVID-19 concerns, so a campus employee now picks up the mail to bring back, she said.
Aside from the delivery of important documents and items, having an address to put on job and rental applications is often better received by potential employers or landlords, Schwabenlender said.
The post office is “mission critical” for the campus, she said.
“You can’t make a lot of progress out of homelessness without a mailing address,” she said.
Mail means: Connection for a rural town
Munds Park got a glimpse at what life would be like without a post office this summer, when their town post office closed abruptly.
The tiny berg of about 900 sits about 20 miles south of Flagstaff. On June 30, a letter taped to the post office’s door said there was an “emergency suspension” of services, though not a permanent closure.
The closure came after an “alleged assault” at the location between two postal workers from different branches.
Residents were directed to pick up mail in Flagstaff at a mobile postal unit, requiring them to drive about 40 minutes round trip and wait outside in the heat. Many of the town’s residents are older, said Allison Tiffany, a Munds Park resident who helped organize efforts to restore service. And the option was only available during business hours, which was a problem for working families, too, she said.
“The community was extraordinarily distressed by the loss of that service, because not everybody was in a position to drive 40 miles round trip to Flagstaff to go get the mail every single day,” Tiffany said.
Some residents who paid bills through the mail had problems with their utility and bank accounts, she said. Others use the mail to receive medicine, medical supplies or checks, she said, putting their well-being in jeopardy.
The closure cemented the importance of a local post office for Munds Park residents. The community started calling their representatives and the media, trying to get the story out and their mail service back.
U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema stepped in to help.
The Munds Park post office reopened after about two weeks, much to town residents’ relief.
They are back to stopping by regularly to grab letters, packages, prescriptions. The town doesn’t have delivery to homes, which makes the post office a community hub and part of daily life there, Tiffany said.
Even before COVID-19, the town relied heavily on the service to live. Stores are far away, requiring the ability to drive and gas to get there. The Postal Service is the great equalizer, providing access to essentials for those who can’t travel to get them elsewhere, Tiffany said.
“Rural America pretty much cannot exist without the post office,” she said.
Mail means: A lifeline to the outside world
In the past year, a program at the Pima County Public Library has responded to about 2,500 letters from people who are incarcerated in Arizona, providing answers to reference questions, finding relatives or friends, giving the lyrics to songs.
The program is one example of the role the U.S. Postal Service plays in connecting people in prison to the outside world. They correspond with loved ones and pen pals. They communicate for legal needs. And they seek answers to questions that, on the outside, would require a phone call or some internet browsing.
The library stepped in to help with those needs. The program started about 15 months ago, said Matt Landon, a librarian at Pima County’s Joel Valdez Main Library who runs the reference service to the incarcerated. About 10 staff members will answer a couple letters a day, in addition to their other duties, he said.
The library would receive a few letters here and there from people who werein prison, and they always tried to respond, Landon said. Word spread that they were answering, leading to more letters and an effort to formalize the service, he said. They receive about 75 to 100 letters per week now, largely from the Florence prison, he said.
“We’re one of the few libraries that’s doing this right now, and we just decided to go ahead with it,” Landon said. “And we kind of came up with a system of how to efficiently answer questions and print out images and price letters, and we have a whole infrastructure around doing this service.”
He shared a thank-you note from one person who regularly uses the service, who said the librarians’ help was key to him writing and self-publishing a book.
Jeanie Colaianni serves as a mentor for writers who are in prison, through the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Art for Justice project. She regularly corresponds with four writers who are incarcerated, two of whom are in Arizona.
One writer she works closely with has written to say her letters are taking longer to get to him, she said. She recently got a letter from him saying he was worried she may have contracted COVID-19 because he hadn’t heard from her, though she hadn’t stopped writing; the mail was just delayed.
She worries about the effects on the mental health of people who are incarcerated if the Postal Service isn’t around to connect them with others.
“I don’t know what would happen,” she said. “It would just leave these people in isolation from the outside world.”
Mail means: Small business can survive a pandemic
Chris and Courtney Marks celebrated their first year as a small business at the end of July, after the pandemic altered their in-person business and moved them largely to mail orders.
Shrubwell makes drink mixers that can be used for cocktails and nonalcoholic beverages, with unique flavor combinations like strawberry, basil and peppercorn, and cucumber, ginger and rose. The Markses were regulars at farmers markets in downtown and uptown Phoenix, selling their products directly to customers.
But they decided, for safety reasons, to take a break from in-person sales.
Enter the Postal Service, and its consistent pricing through flat-rate shipping, which often is more affordable than private couriers.
“We utilize the post office for nearly every order that we ship out,” Chris Marks said. “They’ve definitely been essential for us and our ability to have dependable service and low prices.”
More recently, they’ve noticed slight delays in their orders, and one package went missing, though insurance built into the priority mail service covered their losses, they said.
Private services tend to cost a few dollars more per order and often take longer to arrive to customers, he said. For a small business, those added dollars would be a major problem for profit margins, he said.
Shrubwell offers free shipping to customers now, since they’re a new business trying to incentivize the purchasing of their products. If the costs increase, they may have to pass shipping expenses on to customers, Chris Marks said. The added expense could dissuade some customers, he added.
“We adapted to shipping our product completely upon the post office. All of our variables have depended upon them. So it would be a big leap to ensure that we weren’t losing money on any orders,” he said.
The Postal Service has allowed many small businesses to adapt to the pandemic, which has altered myriad facets of the economy. When businesses closed to help curb the spread of COVID-19, the mail was there.
Changing Hands Bookstore, which closed for in-person shopping for months, created care packages tied to different themes and holidays. Online orders of books and packages essentially kept the store in business, said owner Cindy Dach.
The Postal Service’s flat-rate shipping made the care packages work. She would design the packages to fit into their priority mail boxes to ensure the shipping cost was consistent and affordable, she said.
The media mail options allow Changing Hands to ship books and other reading materials at discounted rates as well, she said.
She’s more concerned about broader implications of disrupted Postal Service operations, particularly voting by mail, but there would also be disruptions to the way she runs her business if the Postal Service went away or changed fundamentally.
“I haven’t actually planned what I would do. … I really hope I don’t have to solely rely on private companies,” Dach said.
Mail means: Voting, prescriptions, a facet of daily life
The increased discourse around the Postal Service has caused some Arizonans to reflect on the ways they use the mail, something so ordinary as to typically not even register as any kind of event.
The mail brings bills, ballots, paychecks, prescriptions. It shows up with regularity. It’s just … there.
Mimi Rockel, a Phoenix resident registered as a Republican, has voted by mail for more than 10 years.
She originally signed up because her polling place was moved to a location with bad parking options. Now, it’s just how she — and the majority of Maricopa County voters — cast their ballots.
She’s never had any issues. The ballots always show up, she sends them back with plenty of time to spare, and her vote gets counted.
“It’s easy, it’s convenient. And I don’t think anybody has any questions about it,” she said.
She’s doing the same this year: get her ballot in the mail, fill it out soon after, and drop it in a blue postal box at the post office on Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road.
She’s always found the option to be secure. She checks the Maricopa County Recorder’s website, which allows voters to track their ballots and ensure they’re counted.
“It works really well. I mean, when everybody’s talking about this I’m going, ‘What are these people talking about?’”
Barbara Place, also of Phoenix, was growing increasingly worried about the various important items she receives in the mail.
When she started seeing the news about slowdowns and delays, she dropped a test letter into the mailbox near her home, addressed to herself, to see how long it would take to arrive. More than two weeks later, it still hadn’t shown up.
She worried about what that could mean for other mail that she really needed. She gets her husband’s prescriptions, ordered in three-month supplies, via mail.
Some insurers require the use of the mail. It’s sometimes more affordable to order prescriptions online, and you can get 90-day supplies. Veterans who use the VA hospitals get medicine through the mail.
Place also was waiting on an unemployment insurance check, her first since moving to Arizona 13 years ago, after she was furloughed by her employer, an educational publisher. She had signed up for direct deposit to go onto a debit card issued by the Department of Economic Security, but it must not have gone through in time. She could see on the DES website that a paper check was en route.
“I just hate what’s happening to the country — an assault on our mail, when you’re relying on it for checks and when you’re relying on it for medicine and you’re relying on it for an unemployment office that you cannot even speak to a human being,” Place said.
But the mail did go through, mostly, because it must go through.
The test letter never arrived, but the things she really needed did. The prescriptions arrived on time. She got her first unemployment check.