Home is a Tenacious Heart

How homeless companions survive heat, flooding, gunfire, and bureaucracy

Terri Franco's camp is hidden in the leaves of the sprawling tamarisk. The tree, thriving at the bottom of a cavernous wash, is her home.

"Had I been on the Mayflower, this girl would have survived," Franco says, thumbs to her chest. "I believe that 100 percent because I have learned that I am one hell of a survivor."

Franco turns 58 this month. She'll also have eight years free from abusive relationships, and eight years of being homeless. She wears her life and her passion on her face. She laughs and cries openly and howls about the injustice she sees in the world, mainly about how homeless people don't get the help they need.

She loves the George Carlin quote: "There's no war on homelessness. You know why? Nobody stands to get rich off that problem."

Franco thinks homeless-outreach programs are too concerned with filling quotas—getting people into housing regardless of whether it's a good fit or something that can work long-term. She's also concerned that homeless people who are high-functioning, like she is, get overlooked.

"It's all about the numbers," she says, her face framed by thick bangs, an abundance of long brown-grey hair in a ponytail on top of her head. "Human beings are not numbers. Numbers do not bleed and breath—people do."

Inside her tree's haven of rambling branches is a campsite to be reckoned with: fire pits for cooking, a cinderblock oven, neat stacks of canned food, pots and pans hanging from a thick branch, a hand-made wire crucifix blowing in the breeze.

Shade lays on everything, a cool blanket like an early spring morning, resisting the stifling reality of mid-June. Franco sits in one of several green metal chairs next to a dormant fire-pit, the camp-fire smell already carried away by the cool breeze. Everything in the camp has its place. Even the dirt under her feet looks swept.

There are a few bikes. Some are for getting from A to B, and others for the three-mile water-and-ice-hauling trips. There are a couple storage tents with boxes and bins neatly stacked and elevated to deter rats and other sneaky critters. Franco has a little shack, built out of plywood and screen—her $150 home, she calls it.

Franco's dear friend and campmate 80-year-old Dan McLeod has a tent. His bed is off the ground; the blankets are made. Next to it is his dog's bed and a camp chair where he spends much of his day listening to conservative talk radio and rolling cigarettes. McLeod's a veteran. He never served in a war, but did three years in the Navy.

Franco and McLeod have lived together in the tamarisk for nearly four years.

"We're OK right here—it's a harder life, but we've been doing it," Franco says. "You have to use a lot of common sense, in the heat, in the monsoons, in all the different issues that we have."

Thanks to Love and Grit

They lived through a flood. Bikes tied to tree trunks, they got themselves and their three dogs out of the wash and dealt with the mess once it was over. They lived through a shooting. One night after Franco got into a confrontation with a man trying to dump trash in the wash, someone unloaded a gun into their campsite. They just lay in their beds and prayed.

"We know what we're into down here," Franco says. Breaking from 17 years of abuse has made her resilient. Her last partner beat her with whatever he could get his hands on, whether it was a bike chain or a machete. When he said he'd kill her if she called the cops, she believed him.

Sometimes she'd run and hide in the desert. That's where she first met McLeod, 10 years ago. He was camped in a wash popular with homeless people. Franco was making a little cash from recycling and started seeing McLeod at the recycle place too, carting in bags of cans.

"We just started talking," she says. "I just got a heart for him because I learned that he is basically by himself. And we became friends."

She started hiding at McLeod's camp and crying on his shoulder. When she made a final break, she set up a camp not far from McLeod.

"It's very rare to see women stand alone, homeless," Franco says. "I knew I could do it because I'm too feisty. Plus, I'd had it with men. I was tired of being beat on and controlled."

One day, Solavina showed up outside her tent, Franco's first dog. The stray was running from coyotes. She was skin and bones and full of stickers. Franco wasn't looking for a dependent but had to help her. Seven years later, Solavina won't leave Franco's side. She's healthy and strong but still won't let anyone touch her, not even Franco.

Franco rescued Puppy Boy three years later. He was abandoned behind a gas station. After seeing him there several days in a row, she took him home to the desert. She was in no position to take care of a couple dogs, but they came into her life anyway.

"When you win over a dog like that, you've got a love like you'll never see in your life," Franco says. "I don't even think my mama loved me like those dogs love me. I also felt like Solavina was healing for me because she was beat down like I was. We were two beat-down females."

Franco was at that first camp, in a wash south of the county jail, for three-and-a-half years, until the city kicked her out when a new bike path went in.

Between a Rock and a Wide-Open Place

These days Franco spends most of her time worrying about McLeod. He's blind in one eye and the other has cataracts. His hearing is not great either. She goes with him to his doctor visits and knows the follow-up dates off the top of her head.

McLeod gets services through Veterans Affairs. He resisted getting medical help for years, and now the VA mostly communicates with Franco about his appointments.

"It's too difficult for him," Franco says. "It gets too overwhelming and confusing. He's been so good and cooperative with me. And now that we're getting going, bless his heart, he's grateful. He sees how important this is for him. That's my goal right now."

McLeod's only income is $640 a month from Social Security, which goes toward food and necessities like dog food, laundry detergent, toiletries, heartburn medication, minutes for his phone, bug repellents, batteries for his radio, bus passes and bike upkeep.

He's been on the streets for more than two decades, after fleeing his past in a small New England town. His only son got sentenced to life in prison for murdering his own boyfriend. No one treated McLeod the same after that, and he had no family left. He started hopping trains in his late 50s and eventually landed in Tucson.

When Franco and McLeod moved into the tamarisk, looking more like a large thicket from the busy road and neighboring Southside housing complex, they carted 18 wheelbarrows of trash from illegal dumping out of the wash.

Over the years, city and county officials working on homeless issues have visited their camp and so have a slew of reporters and social workers. But in March, they received a different kind of visit.

A city staffer handed Franco an eviction notice and stapled several around the outside of the camp that read, "72 hours to vacate." For days, she was afraid to leave the camp, even for water—afraid she'd come back and her home would be gone.

"I don't want to be in a shopping cart up on the streets," she said. "I refuse to live like that."

The city never followed up, but since the eviction scare, social workers from the Red Cross and the VA visit them frequently. McLeod qualifies for housing services that Franco doesn't, not only because he's a veteran but because of his age and health issues.

He's high on the "Vulnerability Index," a numerical gage, used by most homeless services, measuring how capable someone is of taking care of themselves. The higher someone is, the more assistance they qualify for. Franco, not surprisingly, tests very low.

But if a homeless vet says that someone is in their household, organizations will try to get them into housing with that person, says Michael McClure, a case manager with the American Red Cross' Support Services for Veteran Families who's been working with McLeod and Franco. Other social workers have told Franco she may be holding McLeod back from getting into housing on his own. But he's adamant about not going anywhere without her.

One outreach organization recently found them a rent-reduced one-bedroom apartment, the standard for two people who need subsidized housing. They would each be required to pay 30 percent of their income, which would amount to about $220. Not only is that a lot for them, but Franco says stuffing them into a tiny space with the three dogs is not feasible.

"It's a set-up to fail," she says. "They want to take two people who have been out here in the desert, in this wide-open living space, with their own living spaces but close together where we can watch out for each other, and throw us into a teeny-tiny, barely one-bedroom apartment."

Franco says her and McLeod love each other, but they're both set in their ways and would butt heads if they were in such close quarters.

Making Amends and Moving On

Franco and McLeod want to stay where they are until they get into a housing situation that could work for them long-term. Franco is in the process of getting certified as McLeod's caregiver. When she does, they should qualify for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the VA.

She's also mending relationships with her two grown children. During her years with abusive partners, her kids lived with her parents and barely heard from her. Now she's doing everything she can to make up for that time.

"I'm so blessed that they let me come back into their lives," she says. "I want to be the best I can be, for whatever time I have left, for them. They deserve that much."

Her daughter recently had Franco's first grandchild. He's 8 months old, and Franco tries to spend at least one day a week with him. Franco's son works at the University of Arizona and is earning a Master's in Library Science.

Talking about them, she beams. When people ask her why she doesn't live with them, she says she already took enough from them and wouldn't want to burden them again. She also takes care of her elderly mother, riding the bus across town at least once a week to bathe her and make her food.

Franco gets food stamps and has Medicaid health insurance. She abhors panhandling but has a few jobs, cleaning the houses of friends and family members, which amounts to about $100 a month.

The afternoon heat creeping into the shade of the tamarisk, Franco drinks diet ice-tea out of a cooler, which she biked three miles to get ice for. McLeod sits in his chair and tosses Cheetos to their resident roadrunner. The dogs lay in the shade and occasionally howl at ambulances passing by on the road above.

"I'm a believer that everything in your life happens for a reason," Franco says. "I made some really bad choices in my life and mistakes. I've taken responsibility for my choices the best I can."

The VA will continue trying to find them a better living situation. But in the meantime, Franco has her dreams—a little property with a couple of 8-by-12 houses and a solar panel.

"I just want people to see another side of homelessness," she says. "Some of us are just regular people who have come onto some bad times. We're just trying to live the best we can with our circumstances."

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