Longform

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."

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.

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar