Homeless: Stuck Between A Rock And Hard Times

Living off the land.

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The notion strikes at the very essence of what it means to be a resident of the great American West.

Wild. Strong. Courageous. Inventive. Self-reliant. Free.

Our rugged regional self-image hints at a simpler time when men and women of substance and determination coaxed well-cultivated lives out of the chaos and cruelty of the unrelenting natural world.

That leathery self-determination that we so admire in our pioneering legends is mirrored in Tess Johnson, a homeless woman, and her son Freddie Jones, who spent the past three years carving a home into a corner of the Tonto National Forest.

They cleaned out the underbrush, freed the trees of mistletoe, planted lush vegetable and flower gardens and hauled water from the Tonto Apache Reservation across the highway to help their plants thrive.

No handouts, no government money. Just the patience to collect aluminum cans, the thrift to live on $50 a week, strong backs to move earth, rock and water by the gallon, and a borrowed patch of government land to call home.

That all changed a few weeks ago, however, when Forest Service officials discovered the pair's oasis and ordered them to dismantle their home and gardens, restore the site to its original forested state and find refuge elsewhere.

The story of Tess and Freddie's plight struck a chord with people across the nation and sparked an outpouring of sympathy and support for the pair and outrage at the Forest Service for sticking to the letter of the law, which clearly spells, "No living in the national forest."

That kind of support and righteous indignation is all well and good, but this is clearly one of those situations where one must consider the complexity of the issue.

Had Forest Service officials stumbled upon drunken derelicts who were trashing the public forest, we suspect that those who are condemning forest officials for throwing Tess and Freddie out of their home would be first in line to demand that the bums be booted out.

And if forest officials had looked the other way for Tess and Freddie while shooing drug dealers and other hooligans out of the forest, it's not far-fetched to imagine that today's litigious society might produce some forest-dwelling ne'er-do-well who would file a discrimination lawsuit against the Forest Service. And in this crazy world he might just win.

Before we go on bashing the bureaucrats for being rigid and inflexible, we should remember that we live in a society that doesn't give them a lot of latitude.

The government has never been very good at solving the kinds of problems that Tess and Freddie now face. The best solutions for hard times have always been kind, generous neighbors who are willing to help. Tess and Freddie are looking for a place to stay in Payson. If you can help, send an e-mail to tproundup@aol.com. Include your name, phone number and return e-mail address.

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