Payson's Homeless

Forest is home for those trying to get back on feet

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Taking a shower or using a bathroom are daily luxuries most people take for granted. But there are a few who consider those items more of a privilege.

At first glance, James Finley appears to be a man who is camping for a few days in the forest near Preacher Canyon.

But Finley is not camping for a few days. He is homeless and is living in the forest out of necessity.

At his campsite, which is near a creek and miles from civilization, is where he spends the majority of his time.

The 57-year-old man receives a disability check of $600 a month, which is directly deposited into his bank account since he has no address where it can be sent.

He said the $600 does not go far, and added the cost of fuel is what is really hurting him.

"Gas is just eating me up," he said.

Finley has set up a mattress in the back of his station wagon where he sleeps at night.

Until recently, he used an outhouse to go to the bathroom, but the outhouse that was located near his campsite has been removed. He said he now does what he has to do.

When taking a shower, he attaches a water jug with creek water to a branch of a tree and lets the sun heat the water before standing underneath it to shower.

He said he used to hold a jug of water over his head, but it was tough to clean himself with only one hand.

"You have to clean yourself some way," he said.

He has called the forest near Preacher Canyon home for the past four months, and is calling his camping spot the best of the best.

Finley, who moved to the Rim Country from Northern California, said he cannot do any physical labor since doctors fused his spine back in 2002.

He said he fought with the Social Security department for nearly 10 years to get disability.

Living on $600

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James Finley worked as a Federal Express driver before injuring his back. He never envisioned he would one day be homeless.

Finley's $600 monthly check is used mostly for car insurance, school supplies for the computer and art classes he takes at Gila Community College and gas. He uses what is left to buy toilet paper, shaving cream and blades.

He is penniless at the end of each month.

If Finley needs medical attention, he turns to Medicare, which pays for 80 percent of each bill.

To feed himself, Finley visits the Rim Country Food Bank a few times a week.

Most of the food is canned goods that can be heated up over a campfire.

"I do shop to add something to a meal, but not very often because I run out of money," he said.

Before getting injured, Finley was a delivery driver for Federal Express. He never envisioned that he would one day be homeless.

According to the Tonto National Forest Service, Finley is exceeding the amount of time he can camp in the forest.

Walt Thole, recreation officer for the Tonto National Forest District in Payson, said a person can camp in the forest up to 14 days in a 30-day period before he or she would have to move to a different forest, not just move to a different location in the same forest.

"If they exceed that notice we encourage them to move before any (enforcement) action is taken," Thole said.

Payson's homeless

Finley is not the only homeless person living in the Rim Country.

The Rim Country Food Bank said they see some, though not many, who come to pick up food boxes.

Blanche Oakland, parent community liaison for the Payson Unified School District, said there are a number of students who are homeless.

"We do see homeless students every year," she said, adding that she could not give out the number for confidentiality reasons.

She said when the school finds out a family with a PUSD student is living in a car or a tent in the forest, it classifies them as homeless.

A student in a situation like this does not have to provide the district with any written documentation in order to be enrolled.

"They have a right to an (education)," Oakland said. These students are given school supplies and other items for the classroom.

"We do anything to (try) to get the family back on its feet," Oakland said.

Many times, she said, homeless students show up without showering. Many shower in physical education class.

A student who is homeless has complete confidentiality where only the staff knows of the situation.

"We have a homeless policy that we post around the campus," she said. "If any student or family sees it, they know they can register."

She said because Payson is easily accessible to the forest, there are a number of families who will go there while trying to get back on their feet.

They have assisted numerous families who, in time, have recovered financially to be very successful, she said.

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