Tucson clears part of '100 Acre Wood' homeless camp

Tucson city officials cleared a section of a homeless camp at “100 Acre Wood” on Thursday morning, removing about nine people to clear the way for testing for the chemical PFAS and for a fall renovation of a bike park near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Earlier this month, officials began warning what were then about two dozen residents they needed to clear out of their camp tucked into a copse of trees along a triangle of desert near South Alvernon Way and East Golf Links Road. For much of the last few years, the area has become Tucson’s largest homeless encampment, where blue and green tents pop up out of the ragged desert while traffic on along the neighboring boulevards thunders along.

Andy Squire, a city spokesman, said last week that around 25 people needed to move. However, on Thursday morning that number had dwindled to just under 10. He added the city began clearing the area months ago, including removing 20 abandoned vehicles, including an RV.

On Thursday morning, police cordoned off a section of the camp and began ordering people to leave. As they worked, city workers began maneuvering a garbage truck into the area, while a group of people with Community on Wheels, the Tucson Tenants Union, and Community Care Tucson began helping people carry out their belongings.

Squire said the city will keep valuable items in storage until people retrieve them. The displaced residents of the encampment each rejected services offered by officials, including spots in shelters. Many shuffled their belongings to a nearby section of the property, away from the sheltering trees along the north edge that are in the section the Air Force will disturb with chemical testing.

By 8:30 a.m., most of the camp was cleared as workers used a skid-steer to cram tents, blankets, scraps of wood, and abandoned clothes into the garbage truck’s maw.

Owned by the neighboring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the land is leased to the city, Squire said. In the next few months, officials will begin drilling on site and taking soil samples to test for PFAS—per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally in the environment and have been linked to cancer, heart and liver problems, developmental damage, and other health issues.

Squire said D-M officials will take “massive soil samples” as they work to mitigate a plume of PFAS contamination and ensure the chemical doesn’t move to a nearby well serving the Roberts Neighborhood along East 29th Street.

Further, this fall the city will move to renovate the bike park, part of a partnership between Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists, the city and D-M. In 2019, SDMB began seeking $2.9 million in donations to build trails, jumps and other amenities.

Tucson takes tiered approach to camps

For the last two years, Tucson has maintained a program allowing people to report a homeless camp while offering services and mitigation efforts. After a complaint is made, city officials evaluate the situation and assign one of three tiers to the camp. 

Tier one means the camp has disbanded and city officials will clean up the site.

Tier two means people are living there and are able to “govern
themselves and keep the area free from disruptive activities.” At that
level, the city will offer outreach, and negotiate a trash pickup.

However, at tier three, when a camp is considered a “high-problem encampment,” the city will order people to leave within 72 hours because of “violence and crime towards the surrounding community, the encampment inhabitants themselves, and many environmental hazards.” 

Personal effects and camp gear may be removed after the 72 hour notice, and Tucson police officers “take appropriate enforcement actions” against people who haven’t left the site, according to the city’s protocol. And, the camp will be completely cleared within 15 days “to prevent campers from returning.

The city’s efforts were at the center of a lawsuit launched by residents near Navajo Wash, however earlier this month, a Pima County judge rejected the claims, ruling city officials were not responsible for the “public nuisance” created by people living in the Midtown wash.

Encampment residents turn down services

On Thursday morning, a small contingent of city officials, including Brandi Champion, the director of Tucson’s Housing First Program, began trying to convince people to leave and take a slot in one of the city’s shelters, but found no takers.

Since January, officials have attempted to get people to leave the encampment and about 75 people have left, said Squire. 

“We’ve been offering shelter, detox referral, and other services,” Champion said, adding the work was difficult. 

“People need to want help, and it takes a lot of effort to build trust,” she said. That might start with just a water bottle or a conversation, she said. “It takes time, and it takes a lot of resources to get people what they need.” 

“We have been
providing outreach to this location for some time,” Champion said by email last Friday. “We give plenty of warning offering
many different services before an encampment is decommissioned. I wish
more folks would take the services. This is no way to live.”

“We been working on this all along,” Champion told the Sentinel on Thursday, noting a similar encampment near South Swan Road was moved and some of the residents there are living in shelters or found help. “We’re trying to get people wrap-around services, but it takes convincing. For some people this is where they feel safe and this is their community. Really, if we could we’d move the whole community at once.”

“But, we don’t have the resources,” she said.

Along with city officials, members of several homeless and mutual aid groups arrived to distribute water, food and other materials and to “document the planned sweep” of the encampment. This led to at least one tense exchange with city officials as activists argued the city wasn’t offering shelter to people in the camp.

For Augstine De La Rosa and his father Gus, Thursday morning arrived with a sudden wake-up call at 4 a.m. from Tucson police officers. TPD officers told Augustine to get moving and break down his camp, which includes not only a large shade structure cobbled together with tarps, but also an ad-hoc front yard with small garden. 

Augustine, 36, quickly moved his father, in a wheelchair after losing a leg to “medical complications,” about 200 yards to the south. Then, he began shuffling coolers, a small generator, tents, sleeping materials, and a package of pork chops to a new camp.

“This sucks,” he told the Tucson Sentinel. “It’s unfair, they’re making us move.” De La Rosa said he’s been in the area for nearly two years, and every day is a struggle. Under the morning sun, he started building a new tent for his father.

Behind his camp, a yellow band of caution tape reached from a nearby palo verde tree to a shopping cart behind Augustine’s tent. However, after De la Rosa told reporters no one notified him he had to move, Tucson Police Cpt. John Carlson arrived and realized someone had made a mistake—the tape should have reached behind the tent, leaving De La Rosa and his father in place.

“Is someone messing with our tape?” Carlson said aloud. Soon, he bundled the tape into his hands, and left De La Rosa and his father to put their belongings away.