Is There A Solution For The A Mountain Homeless Camp?
By Dennis Noonan
EVICTING THE RESIDENTS of Tucson's A Mountain shantytown will do little more than temporarily boost welfare rolls, says the homeless camp's unofficial mayor.
"By evicting us, they're putting us all back on welfare and food stamps," says the 55-year-old Doc, who claims to be a Vietnam War vet, mechanic and "retired biker."
Doc says he doesn't want to return to the local homeless shelters because he and his wife would have to sleep separately. Besides, their dog couldn't stay there.
But like any politician, Doc may be exaggerating when he turns up the rhetoric. Many of the shantytown's 100 or so residents say they have no intention of living off the public dole for more than a few weeks, and add they like their nomadic lifestyle.
"I am a free man. Nothing really upsets me. I will go where I can and live my life according to God's will," says 59-year-old Preacher, a former Louisiana resident who says he served as a soldier in the Korean Conflict and was later in the U.S. Navy until 1957.
Bob, another camp resident, says he and his neighbors worked hard to build homes on the site, a former garbage dump--perhaps too hard. "Doc and I were the first ones to build houses here, about a year and a half ago," Bob says. "Other people started to come in and build more and more shacks, and with more people came more problems."
Bob says he can understand why nearby taxpaying homeowners became upset.
"We get upset, too," he says, "when people come here and bother us. There have been tramps and users of hard drugs who bother us at our homes and cause problems, just like there are in other neighborhoods. There have also been neighbors from the housing developments who come and dump trash on our neighborhood."
But Bob says he'll always think kindly of most city officials, as well as Tucson firemen and police officers, "some of whom have become personal friends."
He also thanks Tucsonans who donated food, firewood, water, building materials and clothing to the shantytown residents.
Americans traditionally have been tolerant of new ideas and lifestyles, and some of our pioneers lived much the way many of the homeless live today. Perhaps it's time we take a second look at the homeless problem and consider shantytowns a viable option for people who simply don't want to live conventional lives. There are large numbers of them in this country, and a sizable number in Tucson during the winter, despite social service workers' arguments to the contrary.
Aside from a few individuals who committed minor misdeeds, according to the nearby residents of Kroeger Lane, there have been no major problems with the regular residents at the A Mountain camp. Most simply wanted to be left alone.
So why not invest some time and planning, and a little bit of money, to set up shantytown sites in outlying areas, where taxpaying homeowners won't be offended or bothered?
In Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, voters have designated a "free zone" (called Christiana) as an alternative community for those who wish to live an alternative lifestyle. Christiana started in the early '70s when a group of homeless people occupied a deserted Army base. Eventually the city donated it to its residents.
Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal has proposed the city set up a camp with showers, laundry facilities and food services that would help the homeless. Under his plan, they would be allowed to stay for two days for free, after which they'd be given the option to sign up for a work program. The work would include pulling weeds, picking up trash, and other menial jobs.
Of course the issue here is the Puritan work ethic: Taxpayers should be willing to help those who really want to change their circumstances, as opposed to grub-staking those who've chosen a lifestyle of homelessness.
The City of Tucson and its taxpayers have been more than generous with the homeless, and will continue to try to help those who want to lead more respectable lives. It's the decent thing to do.
But I suggest we also designate a site for these homeless-by-choice to set up their plywood and tarpaper shacks, and then simply let them be. Their numbers aren't decreasing; the police and city bureaucrats have better things to worry about--namely serving local taxpaying citizens; and, when all is said and done, many of these people like their lives just the way they are.
The time has come to realize we're not going to convert all Americans to our middle-class values, and to admit not everybody wants to settle down to a decent job and a life in a nice house in the 'burbs.
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