For years, homeless camps have dotted the banks of the Salt River, which curves through the desert, along the northwest border of Mesa, Arizona. The riverbed is dry for most of the year, and the landscape — sloping ravines, dotted with trees — offers privacy from the road.
Around the fall of 2015, word began to spread about a new campsite that was different from the others. It was called Camp Alpha, and, word was, it had supplies, security, and free meals every day.
Tim Johnson, 56, heard about the camp in the fall of 2016, a time when he was feeling extra fatigued. He’d struggled with addiction, and spent the last few years bouncing between jail and homelessness.
“I was tired of being on the streets. I was tired of being hungry,” Johnson said. “It just seemed like one day I woke up, and I was like, OK, I’ve had enough.”
When a friend invited him to check out the camp, Johnson agreed.
He was exactly the kind of person Alpha wanted to join. A group called Veterans on Patrol had recently launched the military-style camp as a base of operations to find and recover homeless vets.
Johnson began helping out with daily operations, and in the fall of 2016, was chosen as Alpha’s new camp commander — a role that made him proud.
“Camp commander comes with a big thing,” he said a few months later, sitting in his tent. He described a role that was somewhere between mayor, disciplinarian and mother hen.
“Failure is not an option here. Not in my job. And there isn’t anything in this world that I wouldn’t do for these people,” he added.
But less than a year later, Camp Alpha was gone — and so was Johnson.
At the end of 2009, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced an ambitious plan to eliminate veteran homelessness within five years. It’s made considerable progress, cutting the number of homeless vets across the country nearly in half, from roughly 80,000 to around 40,000.
Even before that, the White House began trumpeting success in multiple cities — including Phoenix, which, at the start of 2014, was recognized as the first city to end chronic veteran homelessness.
But Lewis Arthur says that’s not what he noticed on the streets. He’d recently moved to Arizona, and encountered a sizable population of homeless veterans in and around Phoenix. Arthur was an activist with the Warfighter Rights movement, which focuses on veteran post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
Arthur wonders how many homeless veterans there really were in the area. While on a one-man march to raise awareness about veteran suicide, Arthur says he met scores of homeless vets.
When Arthur embedded with a group of homeless vets and discovered that many were targets of violence and theft — that was a turning point.
He says local drug gangs were preying on the homeless.
“They were tipping over veterans in wheelchairs,” he said. “The first week of every month, these guys get checks. They steal their checks and Obamaphones (government-subsidized phones). And these guys were defenseless.”
Arthur gathered a bunch of guys to walk the streets each night as a sort of vigilante force — and Veterans on Patrol was born.
As the group pulled more and more vulnerable veterans into its orbit, Arthur says the group’s mission shifted from protection to rehabilitation.
For years, he’d been trying to figure out the best way to approach veteran suicide, which spiked in recent years.
“I found that the returning soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they don’t know how to assimilate to our society,” he said.
Arthur says they’d become so used to operating as a team — or, as he puts it, a brotherhood. He thinks the shock of losing that connection leads the alienation some recently discharged veterans feel.
His solution — put them to work helping the older veterans, many of whom were in bad physical and mental shape after years of homelessness.
“When I put them with Korean and Vietnam War vets, they were seeing that they could survive and that their problems were nothing,” Arthur said.
It also gave some former soldiers a sense of purpose, which Arthur says many of them lose when they leave the military.
“If you give a soldier a mission and a battle buddy, he’s already programmed,” he said. “Once you do that, there’s no stopping him.”
In early 2017, it looked like that approach was working for Tim Johnson, Alpha’s camp commander. In his new role, he finally seemed to be gaining some peace of mind.
“I’m very, very fortunate to even have a chance to have this job,” he said. ‘What I bring here is a lot of positive things — a lot of hope, and a lot of confidence that I can help somebody. And as long as I can keep doing that, and wake up every morning trying to figure out something new to help these people, then I’m going to keep on doing it.”
In giving guys like Tim Johnson a purpose, Arthur says, his group is battling loneliness — which he says is the root of many veterans’ most serious problems.
“Loneliness is the biggest killer for these guys out here,” Arthur says.
It’s a point that Arthur says government programs have largely missed. He’s highly critical of the VA’s housing program, which many have praised as progressive. That program is based on a housing-first model: people are moved into homes even before they’ve addressed other issues such as substance abuse. But Arthur says the rush to put people in apartments can be harmful.
“I completely disagree with the way they have the system set up for chronic homeless vets,” he said. “You can’t take them from being 15 years out here living on the streets and put them between four walls — you’re setting them up to fail.”
He argues that they need a transition time to re-acclimate to society. He thinks the best way to do that is through places like Camp Alpha, where they can form social bonds.
Jack Tsai, a researcher at Yale University, who also works at the VA, agrees that social support is crucial — and sometimes it doesn’t come with housing.
“What we found is supportive housing does help people stay housed, but they’re still reporting a lot of kind of social isolation,” he said.
It’s a problem that he says housing-first programs should consider more closely.
“If housing is first, what’s second?” Tsai said. “Housing first is built on the premise that, let’s not set up any prerequisites for treatment. But then there’s the question of, when do the treatments come in? When do the other supports come in?”
But Tsai says mental illness, financial stress and substance abuse are even bigger factors in veteran homelessness and suicide than social support.
As it turns out, substance abuse may have been an Achilles’ heel at Camp Alpha.
By October of this year, the camp was gone.
One of Camp Alpha’s leaders was found dead, lying face-down in shallow water at the Salt River bottom. According to reports, he’d been drinking. Founder Lewis Arthur says after that, they decided to shut down. Others say the state evicted the camp: the Arizona Department of Transportation — which had been trying for months — finally succeeded in booting them out.
In October, Tim Johnson was was gone too. Lewis Arthur says Alpha’s new commander had been supplying residents with illegal methamphetamine.
There have been lots of setbacks, but none of that’s stopped Veterans on Patrol, from setting up new camps. Because as he sees it, no system will ever be able to solve homelessness the way people can.
“It’s not the government’s problem — it’s our problem,” he said. “The people have to solve it.”
A version of this story was originally produced as part of a Next Generation Radio project at NPR station KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona.