Phoenix's Homeless Escape the Summer Heat to the Big Rock Candy Mountains of Flagstaff
The guys should be here somewhere. Last time Nick Wood saw them, they were just past a clearing where the power lines hum, tucked into the pine forest on the other side of a downed section of barbed-wire fence.
Their firewood still is stashed there, neatly covered with a green tarp battened down with rocks. There's a fork sitting on one log, and the trash in the stone fire ring seems fresh. There's even a dry copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises sitting under a pine tree a few yards away. Three soggy sleeping bags are laid out under another tree, possibly left out to dry and unexpectedly caught in an afternoon storm. But the guys are nowhere to be seen.
"See, this worries me," Wood says. "I don't know why they would leave their bags out like this."
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It's Wood's job to worry — and to find these guys. He's in charge of the homeless-outreach program at Flagstaff Catholic Charities, which aims to contact people sleeping in the woods around this northern Arizona college town and offer them a path back into society.
For months, he's been working with one of these men, a guy who came from Phoenix, making the 140-mile journey, remarkably, by bicycle. Wood cut through red tape to order a new copy of the guy's birth certificate, and, as with almost everyone he chats up, offered him new clothes and a hot meal. But now he's nowhere to be found.
If the men who were camped out in this spot went into town to seek day labor without securing their sleeping bags, they could be in for a long, cold night. They may have left in a hurry, too, since the truck stop that owns this property has asked police to crack down on trespassers. The cops have obliged, hunting homeless people by spotting their fires from a helicopter at night, then moving in at dawn to break up their campsites. Camping — even sleeping in a car — is illegal within Flagstaff's city limits, and police here enforce that law, even mounting a posse of citizens to comb the forest and call in coordinates.
Such measures sound extreme, but it's hard to blame the cops or residents of this city of 65,000 for being on edge. The area Wood is searching now is the same tract of land where a fire started by a transient from California burned nearly 300 acres last year. The Hardy fire was just outside town, forcing the evacuation of more than 100 homes and costing nearly $1 million to fight. The mustachioed and disheveled homeless man who started the fire, Randall Wayne Nicholson, had his mug splashed all over Arizona media and has since found a residence indoors — he's serving a year and a half in jail.
As the summer gets hotter and drier in this tinderbox town surrounded by the nation's largest Ponderosa pine forest, tensions build. Like a lot of people in "Flag," especially advocates for the homeless, Wood prays for summer rain. If the fire risk gets any higher, rangers may elevate the fire ban to a full closure of the national forest, keeping all visitors out and forcing the homeless into overcrowded shelters, jail, or deep hiding.
Usually, it's the latter.
"I've found that the people who stay in the forest aren't necessarily the type of folks who'd be deterred by closure," Wood says, snapping photos of the site. "They're incredible campers."
Many of the people camping in the woods around Flagstaff — the guys Wood is looking for right now — don't fit the common conception of urban panhandlers. They're what used to be known as hobos — independent-minded and mostly self-sufficient drifters who prefer to live rootless and outdoors, keeping their overhead low and getting by on day-labor gigs. Sometimes, they're living it up out there, leaving enough empties to shame any ASU frat-house. But when tensions are high — as they are now over fire danger — the hobos lay low.
"They're really hiding," Wood says. "When there's more attention, they go deeper into the forest. If someone doesn't want to be found, they're not going to be found — though we're pretty good at finding them."
There are a lot of them to look for this time of year, thanks in part to Phoenix's brutal heat.
Flagstaff's homeless population balloons in the summer as people travel north to escape the 110-plus-degree days in the low desert. The homeless migration, as some in Flag label it, is a regular, annual phenomenon, though exactly how many people are involved isn't clear. Some say it's thousands.
The drifters who end up here seem to like it — this beautiful mountain town makes a nice getaway for desert-dwellers, especially them. Some describe it with words that sound like something out of Harry McClintock's old hobo anthem "Big Rock Candy Mountain," about a land that's fair and bright, where you sleep out every night, picking cigarettes off trees and drinking lemonade from a spring.
Maricopa County's estimated 8,000 homeless people is comparable to the homeless populations of Seattle or San Diego. However, as the Valley's mild winters give way to blazing summers, things get dangerous. A July 2005 heat wave is blamed for killing 15 homeless people in Phoenix. Traveling 140 miles north to escape the oven makes sense, which probably is why about 20 percent of the intakes at Flagstaff Shelter Services from April through June — as the mercury began to rise — come from Phoenix, Mesa, or Tucson.
Even a minor migration stretches the resources in a little college town like Flagstaff, especially since its largest shelter shuts down its bunk room in the summer to conserve funds for the snowy winters at 7,000 feet. That leaves most of the city's homeless camping out — some by choice, others for lack of a shelter bed — and nervous locals hoping they don't burn the place down or chase away tourists.
As the sun grows dimmer behind the clouds, the worried Wood walks back to the little white SUV he uses to putter around town, offering blankets, ponchos, and socks to the needy people he spots every few blocks.
"I wonder where those guys went."
In 2005, Flagstaff was named the nation's 10th-meanest city by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The ranking was based on Flag's city ordinances, enforcement of those laws, and "the general political climate toward homeless people in the city." The distinction still stings locals, probably because it confounds the town's self-image as a friendly, tolerant, easygoing bohemian city that sits above the savage lowlands.
No one remembers — or possibly even noticed — that Phoenix also made the list of the 20 meanest cities. Yet if you're comparing the condition of the homeless in Phoenix and Flagstaff, it's no contest, says a homeless woman named Lilly (some homeless people interviewed for this story preferred that their last names not be published). Lilly, 35, is originally from the Hopi Reservation east of Flag and has been homeless in Phoenix and Flagstaff. She knows people who travel between the cities, and she's seen some of the same people in shelters in both places. Despite its meaner ranking, Flagstaff is, she says, a much more welcoming place for the homeless.
There's the cooler weather, of course, but Lilly says, "I think [another] reason people flock from Phoenix to Flagstaff is that there's no compassion down there. You're just a number — it's 'get your meal, get your cot, and get out.' Here, it's different. It's a lot kinder, there's a lot more compassion, there are more programs."
Flagstaff's programs are pragmatic, too, given the city's dependence on tourism. Lilly is enough of a realist to know that it behooves Flag's city fathers to keep people clothed, fed, and off the streets. While the Phoenix metro area is large enough to keep the destitute far from the gated resorts where the well-to-do lounge poolside sipping cocktails, Flagstaff's isn't.
"No one wants to see anyone sleeping in their car, especially if there's a busload of tourists coming through and wanting to spend their money downtown," she says. "It has to do with both money and compassion, but at least it's there."
The desire to push the homeless out of sight, off main thoroughfares like San Francisco Street and Route 66, is what drove the policy that landed Flagstaff its spot on the "meanest" list. This is the anti-camping ordinance that makes it illegal to sleep outside or in a car on public property within Flag's city limits — which has forced the homeless to trek into the surrounding national forest or to unincorporated Coconino County.
Thanks to the efforts of the town's close-knit group of advocates for the homeless, the law recently was relaxed to allow those cited under it to escape prosecution by arguing that they faced an imminent threat.
While his organization bashed Flagstaff for the anti-camping law, Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition to End Homelessness, headquartered in Washington, D.C., notes that a small city's homeless "problem" often is directly related to a nearby big city's homeless population. Donovan puts the blame for Flagstaff's summertime influx on Phoenix.
"The reality of the situation is that Phoenix's economy — its lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — has created this population and not afforded [it] the resources necessary during difficult weather," he says. "So they migrate up to a condition where they can live comfortably, and that's not okay with the folks where they land, which is Flagstaff. So I think the conversation should be between Phoenix and Flagstaff, and it shouldn't be this process where [Flagstaff] criminalizes the behavior of the people who come based on sheer need."
Donovan, who has visited Flagstaff and seen the city's homeless situation firsthand, says the migration is part of a phenomenon that goes back to the beginning of the last century, when trains facilitated the mobility of destitute hobos. These old routes — up and down the coasts, from New York to Minneapolis, across the South — still are traveled by transients, he says.
"And then there are these micro-travel routes that occur, and they usually are based on weather," he says. "In March, you can go from snow in Flagstaff to upper 80s in Phoenix — and the trek is so short."
But it's easier for the homeless to get absorbed in an area of 3.5 million people. The complaints come when they go the other way to get escape the unbearable heat.
Catholic Charities estimates that only about 10 percent of its resources go to people from the Phoenix area during summer months. But since people who have the wherewithal to make a 140-mile journey aren't prone to needing services at the same rate as more sedentary homeless people, this isn't indicative of the size of the migration. Still, the number of homeless from the Valley of the Sun strains the Flagstaff group.
"It's big for the amount of resources that we have in this town, because we try to gear our resources toward winter months, when the cold causes deaths," says Sandi Flores, who supervises Wood's efforts to reach those camped in the forest. "So that influx in the summer really taps into resources that we're trying to reserve for the population that can't migrate."
The problem is finding places to put people. Since shelter beds are scarce and temperatures are mild in summer, that's usually the woods outside of town. Problems arise if the monsoons don't come early enough. Campfires and charcoal grills were banned in the national forest back in April, as they are almost every summer. However, if the risk of a fire gets worse, park rangers will close the entire forest to the public — mountain bikers and hobos alike.
"These [hobos] are very educated on the rules of the forest — where they can camp, where they can't camp — and we try to help them avoid police contact," she says. "When they close the forest, there's nowhere for people to go."
Flores would prefer that the forest stay open as long as possible — though incidents like last summer's Hardy fire, started by the aforementioned homeless man, make this hard. The Wallow fire, which raged across 841 miles of forest near the New Mexico border last month, was human-caused, which probably didn't help matters. The homeless make easy scapegoats, but it's usually not their fault.
"We deal with this population on a daily basis, and they're some of the best campers out there. Every time there's a fire, it's very quick and easy to say, 'Oh, it's some homeless guy out there,' and that's typically not the case," she says.
While Flagstaff might be inundated with homeless, those running metro Phoenix shelters say they're still plenty busy during the summer. Despite rumors rampant in Flagstaff, Valley shelters aren't buying homeless people Greyhound tickets, says Irene Agustin of Central Arizona Shelter Services, which takes in 1,000 people a night, adding overflow beds when there's an excessive heat warning.
"I'm sure from the Flagstaff standpoint [the migration of the homeless from metro Phoenix is] apparent," she says. "But the demand for our shelter services here still is high in the summer. We're not busing anyone up to Flagstaff. We really have a large population we're serving here, and all our efforts [go toward] helping them end their homelessness."
Not all of them want to be helped, though. And some of them probably shouldn't be — they're doing just fine where they are.
Chances are you'd never see Richard Andreassen's home from the road. Not unless you kept your eyes fixed on the tree line during the hour-long drive along the two-lane highway running from Flagstaff to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
There's an even slimmer prospect of stumbling across it by driving down the rutted dirt service road into the forest that serves as his driveway. But here it is, a red Dodge pickup packed up to the sagging roof liner, pulling an old, yellow camp trailer, with glossy photos of black skies and bright stars taped to its walls and milk crates of equipment hanging off its sides.
Andreassen is neatly groomed with clear blue eyes, wearing a white T-shirt and camouflage pants. He's all smiles as Richard Brust, a Catholic Charities worker who has come to check on him, pulls up.
Partly, he's happy to see a fresh bag of ice and some fried chicken from the grocery store. But he's also looking forward to showing off the homemade telescopes he uses to photograph the night sky.
Andreassen's camp sits on the shady edge of a sparse meadow of cinders, grass, and pine trees with trunks scorched black by some long-forgotten fire.
The autistic 54-year-old worked as a machinist for a military contractor before suffering severe damage to his rotator cuff and going on disability. He's originally from Long Island — the accent evident in his loud, choppy cadence — but made his way west with his mother in the 1990s. When she suffered a stroke and had to go to a nursing home, he was left to fend for himself.
Before she died last year, his mother and the family doctor agreed that the truck and trailer Andreassen used to haul his telescope and camping gear would be the best place for him to stay full time. So Andreassen drove out into the forest to live alone with his telescopes. The thing that keeps him going, he says, is his astronomy hobby, and this barren field is the perfect place for that. Catholic Charities classifies him as homeless, but it's not a term he'd self-apply.
"I want to live in here because I don't like nasty neighbors, drugs, and apartment living," he says. "Homeless? No, I've seen people a lot worse. I get a lot a dopies in town that bug the hell out of me for money."
Rangers sometimes see things differently. Technically, Andreassen is allowed to camp pretty much anywhere in the forest so long as he moves his rig every two weeks per forest service rules, though that's an annoyance for him when his intricate astronomy equipment is assembled.
"I told the ranger — they got a little nippy, they don't want people living in the forest — I told them I don't live up here . . . I stay up here until November, until it gets very cold, then I leave," he says. "They tried to chase me, and I showed them all the astronomy stuff I've got, and the one ranger said, 'Oh, we can't prove you're living in the forest, but we're going to keep an eye on you,' and I said, 'Oh, you're welcome to check me if you want.'"
In late autumn, Andreassen will head south, stopping by a friend's house in Camp Verde for a week around the holiday, before motoring down to Glendale, where he is allowed to park his rig on a patch of private land behind his doctor's office.
"I told the rangers about my plans, and one of them said, 'Well, if you got private land, go back to Glendale,' and I said, 'I can't. I get very sick in the heat,' and they left. They chased off this other guy — dirty-looking with a beard. He was a veteran; he was living out of his car. They are a little unfair when you think about it. They chase him, but not me."
Andreassen is, by the looks of it, a good citizen of the forest. His trash is stowed neatly in bags hung from a tree 20 yards behind his trailer, and there's no fire pit at his campsite, because fires are banned in the forest this summer. Not all transient campsites follow Boy Scout standards — which is, aside from the fires, the biggest problem Flagstaff has with the interlopers.
Flagstaff police Sergeant James Jackson says he has come across a number of abandoned camps over the years that look more like landfills. Walking through the woods just east of town, Jackson shakes his head as he stares at a massive trash pile that sits in the center of an infamous homeless camp. Sweatshirts, shoes, cereal boxes, a stereo, and a Phoenix Public Library card all are part of the epic heap. Jackson estimates that Flagstaff police have chased hundreds of people out of this little patch of woods — which is why he enjoys showing it to anyone who asks about the city's homelessness problem.
This camp at one point grew so big that the cops called it "Tent City," and they've worked hard at depopulating it, he says.
But the homeless, including the hobos coming in for the summer, just go elsewhere. Jackson figures that by the end of this month, there could be a couple of thousand homeless people camping in the woods around town.
He maintains that this doesn't bother most citizens of Flagstaff. Not in principle. Most of the calls the department gets from Flagstaff citizens are about trash, he says, not complaints about people down on their luck and sleeping somewhere they shouldn't.
Yet this squalor sits not even 100 yards off an urban trail, less than a mile from million-dollar homes and an elementary school.
"With these transient camps that you see comes fire danger, but they also come with a lot of trash," he says. "There are kids riding their bikes on the trail, a lot of law-abiding citizens out here, and if they get off the beaten path, you never know who [they're] going to run into out here."
Still, Jackson — who confides that he moved to Flag from South Phoenix to escape the hustle of the big city — says he joins his neighbors in having more pity than dislike for the homeless encamped in this area:
"This is just their lifestyle, and you don't want to trample on that and force them to change it. They're the ones who have to live out there; we don't. But it's a terrible way to live. It's not easy, I can tell you that."
Not everyone agrees with his assessment — certainly not the folks who sleep out here by choice.
Most people would consider Jerome Gunderson's path back into society a success story.
After several years of homelessness, he landed at the Royal Inn, a hotel on Flagstaff's rough east end that, like a lot of flophouse hotels, serves as a stepping stone for people on their way up or down in society. Gunderson works the desk full time at the hotel, which runs programs to help the homeless, acts as an emergency shelter, provides rides to the store and government offices, and helps with résumés.
But Gunderson, 69, greatly preferred living out of his car, traveling through warm spots like El Paso, Texas, and Safford, Arizona, in the winter and up to Flagstaff in the summer. Gunderson retired as a salesman at age 62, then headed west from his home in Elgin, Illinois, on what he calls his "odyssey." He managed to spend four years living in the forest until a blood clot forced him to the hospital, and back into society.
He was late to the hobo game, but he entered it by choice.
"Civilization is a hassle, okay? There are no gray areas when you're in charge of your own fate, okay? I was in control of myself; I was the master of my own fate," he says. "If I had even this much energy, I'd still be out there — I just can't do it anymore."
Though most people, such as police Sergeant Jackson, can't understand the draw of living outside traditional society, Gunderson feels it. He misses cooking meals over a fire, scheming to get water out to a remote campsite, and setting up his ham-radio system far off the grid.
"We were all, more or less, in the same boat out there. We shared food; we shared everything. I never felt threatened at all — it's a brethren-type thing. There's a whole civilization out there that the world doesn't know about," he says. "I'd still be out there if I could."
Gunderson romanticizes things some, letting on just a bit that forest living can be difficult. Brust, the Catholic Charities worker who brings chicken and ice to Richard Andreassen, sees things differently.
"We give out tents every so often, and when we do, some guys will get them and go to the forest. They think they have a good spot; they think they hide [their stuff] pretty well," he says. "And [after] they go into the city for maybe a day or two, they go back and all their stuff is gone."
Speaking of gone, what happened to those guys sought by Brust's colleague Nick Wood? The guy who rode his bike from Phoenix to Flagstaff and his buddies?
After that worried day in the forest, Wood heard that they'd moved into a shelter in town. Because Flagstaff Shelter Services runs only a bare-bones operation during the summer, this means they must be at Sunshine Rescue Mission on San Francisco Street.
As the sun sets on a picnic and concert hosted at the Mission on a warm Wednesday night, campers and shelter guys slowly separate out of a crowd of about 100. The campers drift toward the back of the patio, backpacks shouldered, about to head into the wilderness as a Scottsdale church group, which drove up to perform, finishes the evening's entertainment.
Asking around at the shelter, it turns out that Wood's guy isn't the only one who rode here from Phoenix on a bicycle. Dale lived in Phoenix for a decade, working a factory job and living in a motel, before leaving last July. Since arriving in Flag, Dale's says he's been studying to become a minister.
"The Lord sent me to Flagstaff," he says. "I rode a 10-speed bicycle with a backpack and a bedroll on the back of it. It was a trip . . . After all these years of being a rough, mean, nasty person, the Lord brought me to Flagstaff and turned me into a preacher — how do you like that?"
But he isn't the guy who's missing a wet sleeping bag and a copy of The Sun Also Rises.
"A copy of Hemingway, huh? I betcha I know who he is," Dale says. "If I come across him, I'll let you know."
Stephanie Boardman, who has run Sunshine Rescue Mission for 17 years, says hobos aren't apt to talk about much with a reporter, much less give tours of their campsites. Secrecy is part of the code, she says.
"The people who are in the woods usually don't want to live in society. It's their culture to be more alone and enjoy nature," she says. "They love that and, amen, all the power to them . . . They really want to be out there, and if you try to force people in [a shelter], oh, my gosh, that's a nightmare [for them]. A lot of them can't be someplace where there are a lot of people. I think [forest living] gives them a lot of peace."
Peace is exactly what brought Elana to Flagstaff and through the Royal Inn, where she stops to chat with owner Lynette Bybee. Elana started out in Baltimore, where she'd lived in Section 8 housing for 15 years. She'd always wanted to go out West, and when a wealthy woman offered to buy her a plane ticket to Arizona — a place she'd never been and had only one acquaintance — she jumped at the offer. First stop, Prescott. There, she found the shelter conditions too difficult and was annoyed with the lack of public transit. So she took a shuttle north to Flagstaff and stayed at Hope Cottage, affiliated with the Rescue Mission, for five weeks. Since then, it's been a "one-night-here, one-night-there" thing.
"With the fact that the people in a little mountain town are so warm, friendly, and open, I've been able to really find a lot of resources here," she says. "I've found that people in the agencies [elsewhere] who are supposed to be helping you say, 'Why don't you just get out of town? We think you could have a better life in this other town.' It's very common to just keep pushing people. And many end up in Flag."
For as long as she's been in Flagstaff, Elana frequently encounters homeless people from other parts of Arizona, most saying they've come to escape intense heat.
"I've had about three people encourage me to move to Phoenix in October because they describe the resources for the poor as phenomenal there," she says. "So I'd really like to give Phoenix or Tucson a shot when it gets too cold for me here."
And, next summer, "maybe back up to Flag," she says. "This is really a great town."
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