July 26, 2006 - As evening falls on the Northwest, two scruffy guys lounge under a palo verde tree rolling cigarettes.

The tree serves as a post to keep their decrepit tent - battered by wind and hail - in shape. It also serves as a clothes line and a shelf for keeping certain food items away from the packrats.

It's hard to keep your belongings all in one place when you share a patch of desert floor with critters, but to these two guys, that patch is home.

Roger Everage and Bob Olson represent the residents in the Northwest who you don't see in chamber of commerce guides. They don't golf at vacation resorts or own pricey retirement homes.

They're rarely visible at all except when selling papers on county medians or sitting on the occasional bus bench. Mostly, they stay out of sight, out of mind.

The social service agencies in the Northwest work with anywhere from a few to a hundred homeless folks, depending on the agency, and that includes those who live in vehicles or with friends. But ask the homeless, and they say the folks living in the washes of the Northwest and Foothills, alone, number far more than that.

"There are hundreds," Olson said.

To get out of the public eye, the homeless stay in the washes or along the freeway under trees and bushes, said Phil Willis-Conger, the director of emergency services for the Primavera Foundation's men's shelter in Tucson.

"They stay virtually anywhere there's a little bit of vacant land," he said.

Homeless folks choose Tucson's well-to-do suburbs over the inner city for the same reasons the Northwest's other residents do: it's quieter and safer. And as long as they set up their camps out of sight and don't court trouble, they manage just fine.

"The trick is being very nice to people," said Steve Arnett, who has camped under the stars in the Northwest but now has an apartment. "You can get around and they'll help you out."

It wasn't always true that the homeless of the Northwest kept such a low profile, said Terry Patt-Smith, the associate director of Interfaith Community Services. She remembers a time, for example, when people panhandled in front of Fry's Food Store on the corner of Oracle and Magee roads.

In 2003, Oro Valley annexed 630 acres of land in that area and responded to businesses' wishes that the vagrancy disappear. The town cleared out three camps, including a large and well-established one near the Carondelet medical center on Magee complete with carpeting, doors and a bathroom system that used pails.

"How they were there that long without people noticing was amazing," said Lory Warren, street superintendent for the Oro Valley public works department.

These days, Oro Valley police rarely come across evidence of homelessness while doing rounds, said Liz Wright, an Oro Valley Police Department spokeswoman. The only recent reports she could find related to the homeless where of illegal dumping and two men needing a ride to the Salvation Army.

Warren said she knows of a camp within the Oro Valley city limits with terraces marking off various areas, walkways, and chairs facing the city lights. The city hasn't removed it because it's on private property.

Interfaith Community Services also sees fewer people than in years past who identify themselves as homeless, Patt-Smith said. The number has dwindled to a few a month mostly requesting food.

"The ones up here are very much into their own little space and really don't want a lot of outreach," she said. "They're afraid that maybe we would report them, or they don't want other people who are homeless to know their territory."

Marana police know of a few small camps within their city limits, which they ask inhabitants to vacate each year, said Sgt. Jose Alvarez of the Marana Police Department. By the next year, new people have moved in.

"We don't usually have problems with them," Alvarez said. "We try to encourage them to go to a shelter, but for the most part they're not willing to."

Most of the Northwest's homelessness appear to live outside city limits in county areas. Whereas Marana Food Bank cites about 25 who use their services and the Marana Health Center sites about 50, the rural Catalina Community Services near Pinal County helps 75 to 100 people at any given time who identify themselves as homeless.

Executive director Al Skorupski couldn't say why so many of the organization's 1,000 clients don't have homes, but he said most who sleep outside suffered mental trauma.

"The vast majority of them are veterans - Vietnam veterans and maybe a few Korean," he said. "We also see a small number of women who are homeless and a small number of families."

Although the Northwest offers few of the amenities to this population that Tucson offers - there's no shelter to sleep in, no shower facility, no free post office box for picking up mail - the area holds appeal for those chronically lacking a home.

For one thing, it offers work.

Todd Johnson sells the Tucson Citizen out on the median at the intersection of La Cholla Boulevard and Ina Road nearly every day. Although Tucson outlawed street hawking in 2001 and Oro Valley and Marana both have regulations against it, county medians are fair game.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department finds more crime in areas where homeless folks congregate, mostly related to littering and petty thefts, said Lt. Sandy Rosenthal, but it basically has a live-and-let-live protocol.

"If they're not breaking the law, then we leave them alone and don't bother them," Rosenthal said. "They, too, have a right to be in various places."

Johnson buys the papers at a nickel a piece and then sells them for donations. His meager earnings from standing out in the blistering sun go toward items his food stamps won't cover.

"It's legal to sell papers here, so I have a little bit of income, and the police don't bug me," Johnson said. "If I didn't have that filthy tobacco habit, I probably wouldn't have to work."

Another advantage of living in the Northwest is that it affords safety to those sleeping under the stars, homeless folks say.

"Thieves and robbers prey on poor people," said Willis-Conger, of the Primavera Foundation. "Poor people suffer more, especially the homeless. Whenever they close their eyes to try to get some sleep, they become vulnerable to assault or people taking their belongings."

Gary Angulski said he got jumped in Tucson and was robbed in broad daylight near an ATM machine before he found himself a sleeping spot in the Northwest near Interstate 10.

"At night when I'm getting ready to sleep, I lock up my bike, and I can go to the store, and nothing's going to be messed with," he said. "I could be sleeping and no one's going to beat me up or rob me, or anything. I could leave my stuff there for maybe months, and nobody will mess with it."

Although the shelters in Tucson ensure that their inhabitants won't find their bedrolls carried away by monsoon rivers, some folks like the freedom of outdoor living.

Everage and Olson moved to their Northwest desert spot under the big palo verde three months ago and said they have no interest in returning to a shelter.

"If I feel like sitting up late and listening to the radio at camp, I can," Everage said. "If I feel like sleeping in, I can."

The two have developed a strong friendship, one reason being that they have similar stories: their marriages fell apart, their wives got everything, and they started drifting.

"We just happen to be two real nice guys who just flunk every time we try to do something," Olson said.

Now they drift together as friends, happy to watch each other's backs in the desert, living on their own terms.

"There are no shelters you can stay long enough in, and there are such ungodly rules," said Everage, who fought in the Vietnam War. "There's no alcohol whatsoever. You can't even drink a beer. And I like a beer."

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