A few gray and purple blankets are patched onto Estevan Park's back wired-fence. The homeless campers living on a small piece of land on the other side put them there for privacy.
The small corridor of dirt, bushes and trees is awkwardly positioned between the park and another fence separating it from the railroad tracks. The inhabitants treasure the crowded but otherwise neat spot. It was their home for lack of other options at the moment. But they were kicked out on Friday, April 3, some after nearly six months of occupying the place.
Richard Davis moved in about five weeks ago after staying at the Salvation Army across the street during the shelter's Operation Deep Freeze program that runs from December through spring to get homeless men and women out of the cold.
He was comfortable at Estevan—a decent-sized tent, staked up blankets for a mattress, a few others to keep him warm and two chairs. Also, the assurance that the Soup Patrol—a group out of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church—is there every evening with food.
On Friday, when Davis returned from a nearby church with food for his friend Edward's three pups, he says he was greeted by Tucson Police Department officers who told him to leave or they would arrest him. They called animal control and took the dogs away.
"I took all of my belongings and found a quiet alley, and reside there now," he said in an email on Easter. He's able to check it every day from a library. He previously lived in Florida, and hasn't been able to work for a long time due to serious injuries, including falling from a 12-foot ladder a few years ago while working a construction gig.
Two weeks ago, on an early Friday morning, Davis and his neighbors woke up to a notice from the city of Tucson duck taped to the fence that said they had to move out within three days, or they could get arrested for trespassing. The group says they never heard complaints until then.
"We talked to the railroad people and they don't have a problem with us being there," Davis says. "It is not like we have 50 or so people down there causing all kinds of problems. Police have gone into our little camping area. It's the parks department that raised the issue and it is not their issue to raise."
At the bottom of the notice, in larger print, it says an outreach worker from the Primavera Foundation will pay a visit with information on assistance for immediate and long-term needs.
Pima County established the "homeless protocol" more than 15 years ago to deal with homeless occupants in public parks, construction sites and other places. Part of the county's and city's 10-year plan to end homelessness (established in 2006) is to create more shelter and housing options so people don't have to rely on parks, washes or alleys.
"First we have staff who either are in parks or go by parks or other properties to keep an eye on this sort of thing," says Peg Weber, Tucson Parks and Recreation west district administrator. "(After 72 hours) if there is anything left, we clean the camp up. Sometimes they don't want to engage in these programs, but there is housing for the homeless in Tucson."
Primavera has a contract with the city, meaning every time these notices are put on parks or other spaces, the agency gets an email alert. Then, it is up to that agency to figure out where the evicted are supposed to go, highlighting a bunch of other issues affecting Tucson's homeless community.
Michele Ream, a decades-long homeless rights advocate and a social worker with Primavera for three years, says she gets news of these notices a couple of times a month. The Estevan Park case landed on her desk, and she's been trying to help since. First, she negotiated with the city to let them stay until April 1, because one of the couples there was a few days away from getting housing. Ream also got a temporary motel room for another couple, and helped a six-month resident with the process of getting an ID—a requirement for most homeless shelters.
She had some success stories on this occasion, but that's not always how it plays out.
"Where do they go? Sometimes I will see the same people on one spot who were asked to leave another," she says. "They just don't have sufficient resources who offer services." She brings up the longstanding issue of identifications.
On the Tuesday before they were officially kicked out, Davis and Edward—who lived outside Estevan for about four months—weigh out their options. They mention civil rights attorney Paul Gattone, who does pro-bono work with the homeless. Edward has spoken to Gattone several times over concerns that the corridor of dirt isn't part of the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. They argue the fence marks where the department's jurisdiction ends, and that the land probably belongs to the state.
"They are in that safe place, together, looking after each other, not doing anything, there haven't been allegations that I have heard of criminal activity, garbage, human waste or whatever, so why are they being asked to move from what may be city property?" Gattone says. "A question in mind is if the notice was valid. If the person who signed it, possibly a parks and rec employee, has the authority to do that in this area. There are multiple issues that we are investigating."
As he re-establishes himself at an undisclosed alley, Davis' hope is that his housing, Social Security and disability checks will come through soon. He says he is also working on going back to school—he's two classes short from getting his associate's degree on web design.
"Instead of helping homeless people in America, you are kicking them when they are down," he says "We are not a menace. People think the homeless have no rights, and that is not right."