Mad or nomad, homeless or just hoboing, scores of unrooted transients migrate between our north and south climates annually, following or fleeing the sun as the seasons change. Are Arizona’s “homeless snowbirds” living the couch surfer’s dream, or riding a wave of neglect?
Monty McCoy holds claims to 26 gold mines throughout the West, but he doesn’t have a home – at least nothing permanent.
Today he’s standing out on Interstate 17 about 60 miles north of Phoenix hitching a ride to Flagstaff, where he’s still paid up on a storage unit holding some of the things he’s collected along his travels. McCoy says he can sleep in the unit while he tries to make a few bucks selling coupon books door-to-door for a few weeks, which is typically all the time he needs before he starts thinking about moving on.
“I like Flagstaff,” says the vagabond backpacker, lean and somewhat weather-beaten by the Arizona summer sun. McCoy says he’d worked in Flagstaff for a while before bouncing south to Phoenix and then back north to Prescott Valley, following the change in seasons, and hoping for a change in fortunes. “I like everywhere I’ve lived – until I get tired of it. Every town has something good about it, as long as people take you the way you are. But then you start running into some who don’t. I usually get tired of any place after about three to six months.”
McCoy is one of an untold number of homeless migrants who travel from town to town, generally avoiding the shelters and supportive city services in favor of making their own encampments where they’re least likely to be hassled. When weather conditions or the neighboring residents become inhospitable, these well-equipped wayfarers pack up and move again – an especially vital imperative in Phoenix, with its extreme seasonal temperature shifts and triple-digit summer temperatures.
Back in the day, McCoy, who’s also done odd jobs for restaurants, might have been called a working hobo, a traveling laborer who’s homeless not because he disdains work but because he prefers the unencumbered, migratory lifestyle. Today, young people aching for alternatives to the 9-to-5 grind are sometimes drawn to the hobo ethos, if not the migrant laborer’s work ethic. Train-hopping is trending with alienated 20-somethings seeking adventures more edgy than Burning Man. The sidewalks of Mill Avenue in Tempe are routinely lined in winter and spring with panhandling street kids, often derisively called “crust punks” or “crusties” due to the perpetually grime-encrusted, unwashed condition of their clothes, skin and hair. Come summer, many of those same kids take advantage of the shared railroad access and show up near NAU in Flagstaff, according to the downtown revitalization director who’s worked for both cities.
At 49, McCoy is too old — and too well-scrubbed, having just freshened up at the Sunset Point rest stop — to be called a crusty kid. He’s also far too proud and hard-working to ask for a handout, even insisting on contributing gas money for the ride. “If you don’t need it,” he says, resisting objections as he peels a $10 bill from a very thin stack of currency, “give it to someone who does.”
But he’s clearly enamored of the free bird lifestyle, and holds a rather romanticized vision of the American West. “I’m finally a forty-niner!” he says, acknowledging, with a wink, both his recent birthday and the consuming gold fever that led to his predicament.
His marriage broke up over his ill-advised decision to sink the couple’s savings into buying up claims to old abandoned gold mines, falling prey to an idiosyncratically Southwestern scam: In most cases, the ore is already long ago excavated. After that, the Kennewick, Wash., native started traveling and living out of his van – until that broke down one day near Phoenix and he ditched it at a friend’s house.
“Then I started putting my stuff in storage units,” he says. “Got a 10’ by 10’ in Prescott that’s almost filled up already. I filled up a 5’ by 8’ in Prescott Valley. Going to Flagstaff today to try to do some business. Got a 50’ by 20’ there.
“You can’t live in a storage unit legally,” he confides. “I go back in the middle of the night, get my sleeping bag out and sleep for a few hours, waking up before the manager arrives. I’ve been kicked out of storage facilities five times. You gotta be careful.”
Apart from the mining claims the Bureau of Land Management confirms he still holds (“Once a gold mine, it’s always a gold mine,” he insists), McCoy, a thrift store super-shopper, says he’s got “more stuff in storage units than most people have in their homes” — close to a thousand books stored in one unit; over 600 business suits in another. “I could open up a store and sell all kinds of things,” he boasts.
“But I don’t want to be stuck somewhere,” McCoy adds. “What if I get tired of living there, or someone causes me crap and I want to get away? I like to keep moving.”
Because the population lives almost completely off the grid, it’s difficult to calculate how many of Arizona’s homeless are migratory. Even people who work in the field of social services have trouble tracking them, since the population prefers being left alone and unaided.
“We don’t see those people in our food lines,” says Steve Saville, director at the Flagstaff Family Food Center, which runs both the free kitchen and food bank. “What we are seeing, especially since the ACLU lawsuit [in 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged Flagstaff’s aggressively-enforced six-year-old statute that outlawed street begging, declaring it unconstitutional], is a massive increase of panhandlers in our downtown area. Kids, or adults, who are hitchhiking through America with a guitar. But they end up arguing more with the store owners than talking with us!”
The store owners have their own theories about the rambling vagabonds. “They do migrate,” says urban management specialist Nancy Hormann, who for six years served as president of the Downtown Tempe Community before stepping down in 2014 to focus on revitalizing Flagstaff’s downtown, among other projects. “Because Mill Avenue is so close to the train tracks, a lot of times they hop a train and ride the rails up north, or along the west coast, depending on the weather. I used to joke with my counterparts in Seattle – because they’d see a lot of the same kids up there – that they’re like young homeless snowbirds: they winter in Tempe and summer in Seattle!”
HUD requires that each county seeking continued congressional funding for homeless services conducts an annual Point-in-Time count of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on one single night in January, but that doesn’t show seasonal change. The 2014 PIT count in Maricopa County found 4,865 homeless people in county shelters and 1,053 sleeping on the streets. The sheltered count for Flagstaff and surrounding rural areas was 1,349. But last year Flagstaff’s counting committee persuaded HUD to allow it to delay counting its unsheltered until late spring, to catch that population at peak season – and hopefully secure a higher allocation of funds for the northern counties.
The second count has indeed shown higher numbers of unsheltered homeless during the area’s more temperate summer months, but “not as big of a change as people perceived it to be,” according to Ross Altenbaugh, director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, who participated in the survey. She says the people who’ve conducted those counts are seeing primarily the same people again that they see on the winter counts.
“They’ve found that about 80 percent of the people who are experiencing homelessness that one night in January are in the same place each season,” Altenbaugh says. “Only about 20 percent of them actually move seasonally.”
Perhaps the population is just really good at hiding – not only from the forest rangers, who enforce the federal law that makes it a Class B misdemeanor to camp in one spot for more than two weeks during a 30-day period, but also from social services, whose well-meaning authority they reject. No one counts Monty McCoy in his storage unit. And Saville acknowledges that transient homeless are some of the “heartiest” campers around Flagstaff’s forests, easily able to hike deep into the woods and remain unseen.
Tempe affords lots of places to hide, too. Ken Lynch, director of Tumbleweed, which offers homeless youths ages 12 to 25 safe shelter, emergency housing or just an occasional shower, says their outreach team finds migrant people close to the ages they serve in parks, under bridges and near dry riverbeds.
“There’s this subculture of train-hopping people, who tend to be young, tend to be vagrant and itinerant, with all kinds of different backgrounds,” he says. “Some of them are actually adventure-seekers. Some just have a personality that they’re never, ever going to be able to get up at 6 in the morning and be in the office by 8:30. It’s just not them. Others are literally homeless, but they’d rather stay on the move.”
Mobility, at least when provided by means other than leaping on board a moving freight train, is seen as something of a luxury to people who work with the general homeless population.
“The folks that we see at the shelter are not the group of people that have access to vehicles or access to dollars for transportation to and fro,” Altenbaugh sniffs. “We’re really serving the people who are most likely to die on the street tonight without our help.”
Local filmmaker and ASU journalism grad Robert Felix, who spent two years among Maricopa County’s homeless filming a documentary titled The Road Back Home, says there’s a social pecking order among the homeless just as there is among the middle and upper classes. And anyone who can afford even Greyhound bus fare or to sleep in a working vehicle is among their one-percenters.
“If you think about it, who are the people you know who travel seasonally?” he asks. “It’s usually the more well-off, bourgeois people who summer somewhere else. And I would say it’s the same among the poorest of the poor. In fact, the lack of the ability to travel is actually one of the things that causes a lot of homelessness. Someone’s car will break down in Phoenix and they won’t have the money to fix it, or a kid gets kicked out of a bad family situation with no money or vehicle. Most of them don’t have the resources or the wherewithal to say, ‘Well, when the weather changes, wouldn’t it be lovely to be in Seattle?’”
In reality, of course, not all of the migratory homeless are tramp Trumps, and not all are young. A gray-haired homeless man who panhandles on Ash Street by the Tempe rail line and goes only by the name Wyatt says he became homeless 10 years ago when his wife, fed up with his drinking, divorced him (a common trigger), leaving him only his car, which he lived in throughout Colorado. When that broke down – during a snowy mid-winter freeze – Wyatt got help from a detox center, which gave him bus fare to sunny Arizona.
“I got out in Flagstaff – and saw more snow!” he says, laughing. “Eventually I got another bus down to here.” He says a city’s social services will sometimes offer a free bus pass to homeless persons, but mostly just to lessen its own streets of their presence. “It’s always a one-way ticket,” he says.
Now the Buffalo, New York-born traveler would just like to get away from the heat. “It draws the blood out of you and makes you feel grubby,” says Wyatt, his eyes focused on the railroad tracks. “It’s brutal.”
Some play with the idea of hopping a train, but stop short of actually riding one out of town.
“I’ve jumped on the trains, but I don’t go anywhere,” says Amber, a young girl with dirty red hair who hangs out near the Mill Avenue Bridge at Tempe Town Lake. “Jump on, jump off.”
Amber, who’s totally unapologetic about her lack of ambition (“I don’t do anything, I don’t care,” she says. “I’m not going to work every day just to live in a house”), admits she’s toyed with the idea of staying on the train and riding it to someplace cooler in the summer, but one thing always keeps her anchored to Tempe.
“I’m on probation,” she says with a smile.
“I don’t know where the hell Dumb and Dumber went,” says Ted Martello, navigating his 4-wheel-drive truck over rough dirt paths in the thick of the Coconino National Forest. “They were right here a couple days ago.”
Martello, a scrappy Army vet who heads up the homeless veteran outreach at Catholic Charities’ office in Flagstaff, is out making rounds on this August afternoon, searching for a couple of homeless men the organization had already helped get into transitional housing.
“We had them housed through our program, but they just weren’t motivated enough to seek employment and keep their house,” says the 49-year-old former sergeant, who experienced homelessness himself for a few months after returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. He now travels with a trusty service dog named Buster, a friendly Chow mix who helps calm his PTSD. “We’ll pay their rent and utilities for up to five months. But in that amount of time we expect them to get employment, save their money and have a little nest egg by the time we’re done. Some people will do it, and some won’t.”
Like many who serve the homeless, Martello can get frustrated with those who appear determined to remain perpetually rootless. “We’ll give them all the tools they need to be able to land a job,” he says. “We give them a hand up, but they gotta take it.”
Martello finally locates the two “knuckleheads,” John Gorneault and Craig McCorkendale, in a small clearing deep in the woods about two miles east of the I-17 and one mile south of Flagstaff Pullman Airport. It’s so off the grid that from Google Maps, it all just looks dark green.
“We had to get away from that guy with the camper trailer,” Gorneault says, explaining their move to an even more remote campsite. “He was crazy!”
Of the two, Gorneault, 51, is the most talkative, augmenting his rapid-fire stories with the rubbery facial expressions and manic sound effects of a hobo Charlie Callas.
“I left Wisconsin a couple of years ago, had to get the hell away from that cold,” he says. “I hadn’t been to the Southwest before, figured that was as good a place as any, headed out in my van and boom! Blew out the tranny on the way here, and this is where I finally ended up.”
Gorneault says he and McCorkendale, an unemployed cook from California he met at another Coconino campground last summer, tried to find jobs while in temporary housing, but couldn’t find anything by the deadline. In Gorneault’s case, that may have had something to do with his slightly unrealistic immediate career goals.
“I want to get into 3D graphics,” says the former computer repairman, who says that plan was derailed when another homeless guy stole his laptop at last summer’s campground. “I’ve been reading up on the 7th generation of Daz 3D, and it is just phenomenal!
“With that I could do 3D printing, robotics. I’ve got so many designs in my head,” he says, standing in front of a tent with no power generator and no computer, his arms outstretched to the trees. “But.”
In truth, Gorneault and McCorkendale love being outside in Flagstaff at this time of year. “It’s gorgeous up here right now,” Gorneault says. “Not too hot, not too cold, not too damp. I mean, when I was in my teens and 20s, this was every guy’s dream! Back then we used to have guys’ weekends when we’d go backpacking in the mountains, or go fly fishing.
“This is still where I feel the most comfortable,” he admits. “But I’m starting to get too old for it now.”
A few miles to the west, on a hilly spot between the divided northbound and southbound lanes of I-40, Martello finds Daniel Boone Chestnut, a former truck driver originally from Phoenix who landed in Flagstaff, courtesy of Greyhound, after living a few years in upstate New York with his now ex-wife. “Smart girl,” he says, cracking a self-deprecating grin.
As his first and middle name implies, Chestnut was born to parents who loved the rugged outdoors. “They were explorers, took me all over the place when I was young,” he says. “We had a cabin near Prescott in the Bradshaw Mountains, we went down to the Gulf of Mexico and hiked the Grand Canyon as kids.”
That early-instilled love of traveling led Chestnut to his career as a truck driver, but unfortunately a love of drinking ended up costing him his driver’s license, and his marriage.
“I was off it for a week here,” Chestnut says, sipping on a thermos of vodka provided by another nearby camper, who’s presently out cold in his tent. But staying off the bottle can be hard when living around other homeless drifters. “I’m capable of getting a job if I don’t touch that.”
In the meantime, Chestnut admits he loves living right where he is. “Look at this place!” he says, surveying his own small green mountain overlooking a Rodeway Inn on one side and a Little America on the other. “It’s amazing! I’m a spiritual person, and this is full-fledged Native American spirituality going on here. So I get to feel it, and meditate with it, and dance with it!”
He may literally have an interstate running through his front yard, but, true to the Mellencamp song, Chestnut clearly believes he’s got it so good.
“I’m going to live or die here. And I guess he’s not going to let me die here,” he says, patting Martello on the back.
“We just got to move you further back into the woods so you can’t find the liquor store,” Martello cracks.
Jana Holland calls them “fellow travelers,” those people she sees in ragged tents under freeway overpasses and walking alongside the road with overstuffed backpacks and bags. Sometimes, she actually envies them.
“I have seen people sitting under an overpass where it’s shaded, they’re on a grassy hill and they’re kicking back reading a newspaper, and I think, ‘Man, I want to be able to do that!’” says the 40-ish folk singer and matriarch of the four-piece family band The Hollands! (the exclamation mark is part of their name). “I might want to be on a beach rather than under an overpass, but that looks pretty attractive!”
And so, about four years ago, Holland and her husband Craig, a former punk rocker from Australia, sold their home in Green Bay, Wis., and took off, along with daughter Graciana and son Banjo, in a 40-foot-long converted bus as “merrymaking nomads,” touring the country, playing roughly 100 gigs a year and couch surfing with various host families they connect with through social media, most of which are thrilled to put up an alt-Americana Partridge Family for the weekend.
At first, Holland says, they didn’t think of themselves as being in the same boat as the transients they passed on the freeway, since they lived on a fully-equipped tour bus, paid taxes and still had links to a permanent address (at Jana’s parents’ house, in Phoenix). “We had our physical address, we had our kids registered for home schooling – we did all the things you’re supposed to do so that you look legit,” Holland says.
“But after living nomadically for a while, the lines became blurrier, and now sometimes when we see our traveling friends, who aren’t so concerned about those sorts of things, they seem to have a lightness in their step. And so the further we go into traveling nomadically, the further we want to investigate, what is that lightness in their step? And if we tried to attain it, what are the risks?”
On their first stay in Phoenix, Jana and family got up close and personal with real homeless transients, visiting “the Zone,” site of the Valley’s first “tent city” of homeless cast-offs centered around 12th Avenue and Madison, a three-square-block area once strewn with makeshift plywood and cardboard shacks that’s now the Maricopa County Human Services Campus.
Fenced in and centered around a bleak AstroTurf yard lined with an overflow of sleeping and/or ailing homeless, the campus – to the uninitiated, kind of a high school lunch yard from hell – is designed to offer one-stop shopping for the city’s most marginalized: shelter, substance abuse treatment, and dental health and hygiene on one side; food, employment help and housing assistance on another.
There the Hollands met David White, a facilities maintenance man at Redemption Church in Alhambra who once lived in the Zone and now helps out on a regular basis. White, a street artist who can also be frequently found beautifying the area, carrying on the humanitarian work of the late Phoenix artist Steve Malakowsky, recalls that a lot of the people there felt inclined to follow The Hollands! after their impromptu concert in the yard. But he understands why so many people in that situation feel unable to leave.
“I know the people who don’t feel free to migrate,” he says. “The people who are stuck in their addictions, because their connections are here – outside this fence is where all the drugs are. Also the people who are on disability and still going through paperwork, and people who just feel tied to the services here. And I think it’s a frame of mind with some people, too. Some people just wouldn’t know where to go in a new city.”
“Most people here don’t have the $75 to get from Phoenix to Flagstaff on a bus,” adds Arthur Belyeu, kind of a BMOC in the Zone, a burly, gravelly-voiced Phoenix native who lost his left leg over a decade ago when his motorcycle was struck by a drunk driver. He recently found a job at a local bike shop, with help from the campus. “And then you gotta think about how am I going to get money when I get there, what kind of shelter am I going to find, how are the police going to act. There’s a lot of different things that you have to juggle when you make a move.”
After visiting the Zone, Holland gets why homeless people can feel stuck in one dismal shantytown. But she also feels like a bit of a pied piper for those who might want to launch their own nomadic journey.
“We’re rolling with the migrating homeless,” she says. “We follow the sun. Why wouldn’t you? If you don’t have roofs to hold you down, or ‘paper walls’ made up of all your ties to a particular residence, why wouldn’t you go where you can find relief? One of the things that I see with our traveler friends is that they aren’t held up by those things that offer us comfort but sometimes cost us in life experience.”
On a recent Friday afternoon in the Zone, Robert Hawks, a 51-year-old Phoenix man who says he’s traveled all over – “Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles, Knoxville, Nashville, St. Louis” – riding the bus and finding odd jobs in each town to keep him going, is saying goodbye to some of the friends he’s made on the campus over the past five months. “This is the crib,” he says. “This place turns people into big babies.”
Hawks says he intentionally chose the nomadic life in 2012. “I quit my job, sold my car and split,” he says. “Just because I knew I could do it. I knew I could use my wits and get through it.” He says he started his homeless odyssey as a kind of Simon and Garfunkel-esque search for America, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go. “In northern Arizona, it’s forests. In St. Louis, it’s abandoned houses,” he says. “I lived in a vaco [vacant house] for six months. I’ve slept on docks, I’ve slept in parking lots. I wanted to personally understand it, inside out from the bottom to the top. It’s been hell on wheels.”
Now, however, Hawks just wants to settle back down in Phoenix. He says he’s got kids here and two ex-wives he’s still friendly with, and if he’s got to start over somewhere, it might as well be here.
As for traveling? “I’m done,” he vows. “I think I’ve seen enough.”
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