Salt River police, homeless advocates face off at camp

Posted at 6:51 PM, Oct 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-28 01:56:51-04

Salt River police swarmed into a homeless camp housing veterans early Thursday morning, armed with trespassing violation notices.

Officers ordered the group to leave the area, and told them they were trespassing on reservation land.

In a video shot by a homeless advocate, you can hear a Salt River officer saying, "You're on the reservation, end of story."

When questioned whether it really was reservation land or county land, the officer says, "I don't care what land you're on. If you're in a flood plain I'll figure out what court you need to go to, that'll be the court you go to."

Lewis Arthur, co-founder of the homeless advocacy group Veterans on Patrol is seen arguing with the officer, and trying to reason with him, explaining that all they're doing is trying to help homeless veterans.

The officers demanded the group leave within the hour, and handed out trespassing notices to everyone staying out there. Arthur said his people were not leaving the land, and challenged the police orders. 

"You're part of the problem. You're not part of the solution. It's best you come talk to us, we invite you in we'll show you what's going on and what we're doing instead of coming here with your guns drawn, your citations, and threats of arrest. That is not how we get things done," said Arthur.

The group has similar camps set up in Phoenix, Tucson, and Sierra Vista. Lewis said in every other jurisdiction police worked well with them, leaving them alone for the most part. Officers even referred homeless veterans they encountered to the camp to get help.

Veterans on Patrol was founded to seek out every homeless veteran in the community and help them get help.

In the last few years, the group had helped place dozens of homeless veterans into permanent housing, gotten them jobs, as well as access to VA benefits, ID cards, and even counseling or substance abuse.

The VA and other social service groups regularly showed up at the camp to help the chronically homeless veterans and other homeless drawn to the camp access to agencies. The goal was to get them back on their feet.

Many veteran's advocacy groups and business people in the community had embraced the camp, located off the 202 and McKellips Road, along the Salt River bed.

Tents were filled with donations of clothing, food, medical supplies, and water.

"We even go around and clean up the property. We pick up trash all along the river bed. These guys are proud to be here, they want to keep the community clean," said Arthur.

Homeless veteran Larry Richard Arnott had stayed at the camp for a month. He said he had come in to get help after alcohol and drugs landed him on the streets.

At the camp, volunteers helped him get access to VA benefits; he was getting his first check in month, on his way to get housing, and he had been sober and clean for 22 days. Arnott said he felt violated by police.

"We're doing nothing wrong out here. They're just trying to help people. That is not a crime."

Arthur said they had sent five people from the camp to detox just in the last month. There are eight homeless veterans and 25 other homeless people living at the camp at this time.

Arthur said they planned to talk to a supervisor at the Salt River Police Department, but they had no intentions of leaving.

"If they try to escalate things and threaten like they did earlier this morning, we're not going to let them back up here to ask anymore questions of our people or bother them in any way."

He added that many of the homeless living there were very vulnerable. They had a veteran in diapers who was disturbed by the orders to leave.

"These people need comfort and help, not threats and citations. If you can build a tent city to house criminals, why not a tent city on public land to house our veterans," said Arthur.

He invited supervisors and tribal leaders at the reservation to visit the camp and help be part of a solution instead of coming out there with intimidation tactics.

ABC15 reached out to the Salt River Police department for a comment. In an interview, Detective Ed Alameda said, "Given the fact that they were on community property or community land, they would be trespassing, so it was an informational contact. We obviously are very concerned about anybody out there for health or safety reasons, we have no malintent, but our intent is obviously to educate and enforce only if necessary, any trespassing violations which may exist."

Police said they planned to send surveyors out to the area next week, and put up "no trespassing" signs in the area.

Back at the camp, Arthur said he had a conversation with Maricopa County deputies who also showed up there later, and was reassured that it was okay for them to stay there at this time.