SIERRA VISTA— Hidden from view behind buildings, below street level in washes and culverts and on any spot of open desert where one can blend in with the mesquite and the tumbleweed are the city’s homeless.
Amid mounds of garbage, filthy clothes, stolen grocery store shopping carts, discarded food containers, crushed milk cartons and the occasional syringe and empty booze bottle are pup tents and makeshift shelters fashioned from anything that can be used to keep out the elements.
These are Sierra Vista’s homeless camps.
Currently, the Sierra Vista Police Department counts 35 individuals living in various shantytowns scattered about the city.
Every week, Sierra Vista Police Corp. Scott Borgstadt and the Code Enforcement team venture out to check on the camps and determine if people have moved on, if new individuals have taken their place or if the camps are deserted.
The camps are erected on private, city or state land, says Borgstadt, and it’s not cheap to clean up what’s often left behind. Recently, Code Enforcement officer Gilberto Fuentes said, the city had to pay $20,000 to clean up the refuse at homeless camps in five culverts owned by Sierra Vista.
Once a camp is found, police will tell the people staying there that they have three days to vacate. If no one is around, Borgstadt will leave a sign stapled to a stake and plunge that into the ground where it can be seen by the occupants, usually in front of a tent.
The veteran policeman keeps a detailed and alphabetized binder with information about every homeless person he encounters. There are notes under the person’s name and if available, their photograph.
A lot of times Borgstadt and the code enforcement officers will help people on the spot.
“We’ve run across people with animals and we call out animal control to bring them food,” Borgstadt said. “I usually ask them, ‘What do you need?’ One gentleman told me, ‘I need a pair of shoes. I lost them or they were stolen.’ I was able to go to the Salvation Army and get him a pair of shoes. We try to help them out as much as we can immediately.”
Borgstadt said the city can only do so much.
“At some point they have to make a decision that they need help and they have to go into some sort of program to get them out of this situation,” he said.
Borgstadt points most people to various organizations that help the homeless. Many address issues of addiction. If he determines the person is a veteran, he will call Tim Kirk of the Warrior Healing Center in Sierra Vista.
Unfortunately, not everyone jumps at the chance for help and change of lifestyle, Borgstadt and Fuentes said.
“What I don’t think the general public understands is that many of these people choose to live this way,” Borgstadt said. “They choose their addictions over living the conventional way like you or me.
“Blindly giving them money (to help them out) is not right. Most of the time it just goes to feed their addiction.”
Kirk agrees that addiction is the likely culprit fueling homelessness of many of the people Borgstadt and his team run into. He said homeless veterans, however, most often suffer from a different set of issues, such as post traumatic stress disorder resulting from combat. Kirk said PTSD drives malnutrition, alcoholism and depression.
“This is a person who served their country and went to war and there are a different set of sensitivities,” Kirk said. “Many of them (veterans) can’t keep a job because they suffer from PTSD.”
Many of the homeless veterans Borgstadt refers to Kirk’s organization are guided by volunteers who are veterans and who at one time were also homeless, Kirk said.
The city is working on launching a program called Better Bucks that involves giving the homeless vouchers that can be exchanged for food, toiletries and other essentials. Narcotics and alcohol and some household items that can be used as drug paraphernalia cannot be purchased with the vouchers. The program is modeled after one in Flagstaff.
Friday morning, Borgstadt and Fuentes visited four homeless camps within walking distance of each other just east of the Food City grocery store and south of State Route 90. Three of the camps were occupied.
As Borgstadt approached a tent pitched in the center of a well-hidden spot ringed by mesquite, he announced his presence. Seconds later a dishevelled man and woman emerged. The woman, 33-year-old Esther Johnson, was familiar to Borgstadt because he’s warned her about trespassing before. The man, 41-year-old Jason Mullins, told Borgstadt he was helping Johnson “clean up the area.”
Borgstadt mentions to Mullins and Johnson the groups that offer assistance, but neither seems enthusiastic about the idea.
“I’ve got a phobia about being (closed in) with other people,” says Mullins, who has been homeless for two years.
Johnson, who hails from Arkansas and said her two children are staying with relatives, complained about some of the rules and requirements at one of the organizations Borgstadt suggested.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times the reason they don’t seek the help is because of rumors they hear on the street,” Borgstadt said. “Another issue we run into a lot of times is addiction. You cannot be intoxicated in any way, so folks just don’t go.”
Borgstadt and Fuentes spot an abandoned camp piled with garbage — including a cell phone and some tools — where two 20-year-olds had stayed a few days ago. The pair is addicted to methamphetamine and Borgstadt was able to get them help. When he followed up with officials at the organization he had referred the couple to he learned the pair had failed to follow up because of their addiction.
A few yards from that site, Borgstadt and Fuentes found another trashed camp deep inside a culvert just below State Route 90. A filthy, tattered tent was pitched in the dirt. Robert Amundsen poked his head out. He shimmied out of the culvert and said he’s been homeless for about a year.
Amundsen said his mother obtained a restraining order against him. He admits to having a “drug and alcohol problem,” says he has a bad leg and eats whatever he can out of trash cans. He says he’s 54, but his face is weathered and lined with creases that make him look older.
Amundsen and his friends are familiar with the organizations that help the homeless, but like Mullins and Johnson, he does not seem too interested.
“Their rules, a lot of people don’t like them,” Amundsen says.
Borgstadt is not surprised. He said many of the folks he runs into simply do not want to change their lifestyle if it involves giving up their vices.
Occasionally he has come across individuals who keep their campsites clean and just want to live away from society. They do not beg for money or stand at bustling intersection holding signs.
“There is one gentleman I run into on a regular basis,” Borgstadt said. “He tells me, ‘I just want to be left alone, why can’t you just leave me alone?’
“But those are the minority. The majority we see is the people out here, many who make a living panhandling. The community needs to know that.”
PALOMINAS — Despite a couple of challenges, the Palominas Unorganized (Christmas) Parade made its way down Palominas Road Saturday right on schedule, just as it has for the past 37 years.
“We weren’t even sure this parade was going to be happening because the county was requiring an insurance policy which we did not have, and then because of Gov. Ducey’s order that requires a series of COVID mitigation measures for parades and other events,” said Palominas resident Susan Ostrander. “The Legion Riders out of Bisbee stepped up and covered the insurance, so that solved one hurdle. Then the county agreed to allow the parade to move forward, as long as everyone followed the CDC’s guidelines.”
While the crowd size was a bit lighter than in past parades and the parade itself a touch smaller, spectators were as enthusiastic as ever.
Wearing kilts, a group of four representing the Scottish American Military Society — Kiven Hardison, David Barnhill, Jeremy Nava and Ron Roberts — served as the parade color guard. Hardison carried a banner bearing the SAMS shield, while Barnhill carried the American flag, Nava the Scottish flag and Roberts the Arizona flag.
“All of us are either current or former military, with Scottish ancestry” Hardison said. “We’ve been the parade color guard for a few years now, and we all look forward to doing this. The parade has become a tradition for us.”
Just as in past years, families in lawn chairs lined Palominas Road where excited youngsters scrambled for candy tossed out by passing parade participants.
Dressed as a fat Scott, David Walker was one of those handing out candy.
“I was raised in Palominas and have participated in this parade every year since its start around 37 years ago,” he said. “I don’t always come as a fat Scottish man. I wear a different costume for every parade.”
As a side note, Walker said his mother, Nola, has been proclaimed as the woman who named Sierra Vista. The city was named in 1954, the year of its incorporation.
For this parade, Santa substituted his traditional sleigh and reindeer for a McCormick Farmall tractor.
Entries included a long line of beautifully restored classic cars, representing such models as a 1962 Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk, a 1960 AMC Metro and 1955 Ford Club Sedan, to name a few.
Always a crowd-pleaser, Clydesdale team Tori and Jewel moved in perfect unison while pulling a wagon filled with passengers down the parade route.
The Tombstone High School JROTC mounted unit stepped out of its uniformed, color guard mode for this parade. Instead, the group decorates horses and riders as different holiday characters.
Three generations of the Davis family were among the parade spectators, with grandparents Rich and Christian Davis, daughter Laena and son-in-law Steve King, along with grandchildren Peyton, 8, and Emery, 2.
“We look forward to this parade every year, and are so grateful to the Bisbee Legion Riders for supporting it,” said Christian Davis.
Rich Davis echoed his wife’s comments with, “This parade is a big deal for our community, especially this year with so many events canceling because of COVID.”
The number of parade entries appeared a bit lighter than past years, but the crowd was as enthusiastic as ever.
“I was raised in Palominas and went to Palominas school, so I come to this parade every year,” said Margaret Kuhn. “I’m so glad it’s one of the Christmas activities that did not get canceled. This parade has become a community tradition.”