Many Offers, Few Choices For Homeless Pair In Forest


During the past week, Tess Johnson and her son, Freddie Jones, have been offered rent-free land from people all over the country. One offer came from Cotton, Texas. Others came from North Dakota and New Mexico. One even came from Northern Ontario, Canada.

Still, the homeless pair will remain homeless when the U.S. Forest Service gives them their last extension and they are forced out of the national forest which will likely happen sometime next week.

"It's wonderful that so many people are being so kind," Tess said. "But I don't know how we would get to any of those places, or if we would find work if we did get there.

"Besides, we really love Payson. People are giving us lots of work, and we've made so many friends. We're still praying that something might be worked out that will allow us to stay here."

Earlier this month, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and Gila County Task Force agents found Tess, 51, and her mentally disabled son, Freddie, 31, living in the national forest just south of Payson where they had spent three-and-a-half years creating a home for themselves, complete with thriving vegetable and flower gardens, rock walls and walkways, and a covered patio.

Tess and Freddie were cited for "illicitly occupying national forest for residential purposes." They also were ordered to restore the homesite to its natural state and to be out of the forest by Aug. 23 a date that has since been extended due to heavy rains and the sheer difficulty of dismantling the forest home and all its landscaping.

An international response

The Roundup's Aug. 22 story was posted by a sufficient number of Internet news sites including, and to give it an estimated readership of 2 million people.

As a result, the Roundup received several dozen e-mails from all corners of the country, all of which expressed sympathy, hope and help for Tess and Freddie.

"I have 11 acres of wooded land ... It is the old site of Cotton, Texas and has not been occupied for 80 years," wrote H. Cadenhead. "This land needs someone to care for it, and I would offer an acre of their own in exchange for (their) stewardship ..."

"I live in North Dakota and could possibly arrange for (Tess and Freddie) to have their garden, and a home, and make a little money on the side ...," wrote another reader.

Roger Frazer wrote, "... I have 175 acres here in Northern Ontario, Canada, on which I am building my own environmentally friendly paradise. I would be very happy to let both Tess and Freddie squat, no charge or obligation, on a portion ... Our Forest Service will not bother them. The only problem is, the winters are severe ... "

But as Tess pointed out, the matters of transportation and their emotional attachments to Payson complicate the issue.

Despite the efforts of many, however, their prospects of staying here are, at the moment, slim and getting slimmer.

Last week, Tess and Freddie were hoping they would be allowed to relocate somewhere on the Tonto Apache reservation. But tribal Councilmember Ivan Smith said it is uncertain what the tribe can do, if anything; that all proposals have to be cleared by the tribal council; and that the date of the council's next meeting is unknown.

Carlos Lopez, the pair's friend and spiritual adviser, found a property owner who was willing to let Tess and Freddie move their small trailer onto his four-acre parcel at the end of Airport Road, but zoning restrictions would not allow it.

The most recent offer has come from Ted Tatum Sr. of Gisela, who has told the couple that they can live at least temporarily on his land until they find something closer to Payson. But that possibility, too, presents challenges for two people whose only mode of transportation to and from odd jobs is a pair of antiquated bicycles.

"We're getting so many people offering us work that maybe in a year or so, I'd be able to buy a car," Tess said. "I just don't know what we'll be able to do until then."

Diminishing options

Wherever Tess and Freddie end up, if it's in Gila County, they're not likely to find themselves on someone's land in the little 16-foot travel trailer someone gave them after their 1996 arrival in Payson.

"If they had a mobile home, and the zoning permitted two dwellings, it would be possible," said Gila County Planning and Zoning Director Terry Smith. "But you're not allowed to live in travel trailers as a permanent dwelling. You could perhaps live in it for a six-month period, but they are not equipped for permanent residency."

Even in the mobile-home scenario, Smith said, "there are a lot of circumstances that come into play. It could be in a subdivision where the CC&Rs or the deed restrictions don't allow mobile homes. Also, some communities have adopted the safety regulations that HUD established in 1976, which pre-existed that date because of safety problems.

"But if it's a mobile home on private land where none of those restrictions apply, and they get the required permits and pass the same inspections everyone else has to meet, it could be done," Smith said.

Right now, Tess is worried, but Freddie isn't.

He said he doesn't really care where he and his mother move, as long as it's not too far from the forest animals he has befriended: the blue jay he's named Spla, the raven Boomwac, and Jack, the jackrabbit.

"I'll have to come back here every couple of days when the rains stop to make sure they have water," he said.

Offers of help in good supply

Dozens of people from around the country and Canada e-mailed the Roundup after reading about Tess Johnson and her son, Freddie Jones, in the Aug. 22 issue of the Roundup or on one of the Internet news sites that posted the story. Almost without exception, those who were moved to respond expressed their desire to help the pair along with their dismay that the laws of the land are too inflexible to spare such souls a small patch of open space. Following is a sampling of the feedback:

Creative solutions overlooked

Your recent story, "Trouble in Paradise" highlights the rigidity of the bureaucratic system. Here is a mother and son making an effort to care for themselves and not be a burden to society or submit to the indignities of government handouts. It seems they have demonstrated a genuine caring for the land and behaved as good stewards of their environment.

By kicking them off the land simply because the law says no one may live there, the Forest Service is squandering a golden opportunity. A more flexible approach to such situations could work to the benefit of all. If the Forest Service allowed Tess and her son to continue living on federal property in exchange for their care of the land, the Forest Service would have a resident caretaker and Tess and her son would have their home. All sorts of creative arrangements could be negotiated between the parties.

Michael Conroy

Lives more important than land

With all the (Forest Service) land swaps land that is supposed to be owned by us why in God's earth don't they just leave Tess and Freddie alone. They took the normal fire-causing debris and removed it, making their area far safer than most of the area for brush fires. Or is it a case where ownership of land by the government is more important than the quality of life for the people. Will removing them from the land make it more attractive to mining interests? If you want another example, check out what government has done to the farmers and ranchers.

We have let government have too darn much control in our lives and of our land. We are allowed to work, pay the taxes that support this mess; yet have no say in what goes on.

Russ Thompson

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