A Home For The Homeless

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Tess Johnson and her son, Freddie Jones, are homeless no more.

And they're still living in Payson, just as they'd hoped.

The Tonto-Apache Tribal Council has agreed to let Tess and Freddie stay on the reservation for as long as they wish. And, thanks to the persistence and steely faith of their friend, Carlos Lopez, the pair's 16-foot travel trailer and most of their belongings have been removed from the national forest just south of Payson just under the U.S. Forest Service's final Friday deadline.

"We're just going to let them stay here, on land behind (the Full Gospel Family Church), with no time limits," said Ivan Smith, vice-chairperson for the Tonto-Apache Tribal Council.

This is not the first time the Tonto-Apache's have been so generous to others. "There was one homeless man who lived out here until he died," Smith said. "In fact, he's buried in our cemetery."

At the moment, no one appreciates that generous spirit more than Tess.

"I love the idea of moving over by the church because I can be their gardener to pay them back," she said Thursday. "I could make it beautiful for them.

"I think maybe God was looking, and he saw my garden, and he said, 'You know, it's a shame she has to carry all that water up here. I should move her garden by the church, because my church needs a garden.' I think we'll really like it there. I love the whole idea. I feel so happy."

Equally elated is her friend Lopez, who was the first to find Tess and Freddie in the forest, and who has since become as Tess calls him their "spiritual adviser."

"We're blessed," Lopez said with a broad smile as he and another friend, William, labored to tow Tess' trailer out of the wilderness. "For a while it looked impossible, but you have to be patient, just like Ivan (Smith) says.

"Today, my wife said, 'We know how (Tess and Freddie) feel, so we have no choice but to help.' Because, you see, there was a time when we lived in the forest, too. And we were also told to get out. So yes, we know how it feels, and we're willing to help."

Eden interrupted

Earlier this month, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and Gila County Task Force agents found Tess, 51, and the mentally disabled Freddie, 31, living in the national forest just south of Payson and a quarter-mile west of the Beeline Highway.

It was also found that, during the three-and-a-half years they lived undetected in that spot, Tess and Freddie had carved a small paradise out of dust and junipers creating lush vegetable and flower gardens, rock walls and walkways, and a covered garden-patio for their trailer.

Still, it was federally-owned land. So they were cited for "illicitly occupying national forest for residential purposes" which could result in a fine of up to $500 and ordered to move out as soon as they could restore the forest to its previous condition.

The Roundup's first story about their plight, published Aug. 22, was posted by sympathetic readers on a number of Internet news sites resulting in 180,000 hits on the Roundup's Web site (the average per month is about 45,000), dozens of e-mail responses, and invitations for the pair to live rent-free on land all over the U.S. and Canada.

Similar offers were made by Rim country landowners, but because Gila County zoning restrictions do not accommodate travel trailers under any conditions, anywhere, nothing could be worked out.

Until the Tonto Apaches came along.

"General regulations for zoning do not apply to the reservations," Gila County Planning and Zoning Director Terry Smith said. "In fact, they do not apply to federal or governmental lands of any type unless there is an inter-governmental agreement."

A little help from her friends

The good news doesn't end there for Tess and Freddie, who now earn between $30 and $50 a week collecting cans and performing odd jobs for Payson residents.

"All the women near our new home on the reservation have told me that they have full-time jobs and can't keep up with their housecleaning and gardening," Tess said. "So they want me to go in and clean up all the houses and yards. I can do all my work right there!"

Ivan Smith said he knows of someone who might donate a newer travel trailer for Tess and Freddie to live in.

George Assyd, president of the Payson Lion's Club, is now in the process of opening a donor bank account one anonymous local has already contributed $100 to help Tess and Freddie purchase a used car to replace the two antiquated bicycles that are now their sole mode of transportation.

"Oh, I would love that," exclaimed Tess upon hearing of the fund. "That's really helping us to get started again. That's not like taking people's money. Just an old car, so we can get to town and back. And get to Plant Faire. That's so exciting. Do you think we might be able to get a truck? Then we could help people haul things to the dump!"

Another friend Tess and Freddie met in the forest, Payson resident Mary Wedgeberry, lent them $300 to foot the veterinarian's bill when Freddie's cat, Xena, had a life-threatening tumor removed last week.

"That was so kind of Mary," Tess said. "We are going to pay her back as soon as we can. It just meant everything in the world to Freddie. Xena is his little baby. He's lost without her."

Last words

Don't expect Tess to take any parting shots at the U.S. Forest Service. That's as far from her style as Portland, Oregon is from Portland, Maine.

"The last time they were out here, I told them I was sorry about the way everybody's talking bad about them," she said. "I told them, 'I know you're just people who like to be in the forest. That's why you've got jobs here. You didn't make those laws.'

"We can't lose track of the fact that these cops and forest guys just belong to big organizations. They've always treated me well. They're good people."

But then Tess moved onto the subject that was really on her mind.

"I can't hardly wait to get over to the reservation and start planting the flowers around the church," she said. "Wait till the preacher sees the place!"

To make a donation to the Tess Johnson Auto Fund, call George Assyd at 474-0119.

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