Makeshift housing in Arizona has spawned an online fever dream. But the real reason for its existence is disturbing enough
n a Facebook video posted last week, an agitated man with a red beard, dark glasses and a crucifix necklace hurries through a makeshift homeless camp in the desert somewhere near Tucson, Arizona. “Authorities don’t want to come out, they don’t want to investigate,” he says, pointing out tarps strung between branches, an underground dugout, a toilet chair in the shade of a tree.
If we are to believe Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, who heads a group called Veterans on Patrol, and the conspiracy theories now circulating in the more fervid nether parts of the internet, this is a “child sex camp” run by traffickers or drug cartels. Online commenters have linked it to a novelistically tortuous plot in which Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and the Democratic establishment at large are running a global sex-trafficking ring and seeking to undermine the United States. It’s the kind of web-generated fever dream that led, in 2016, to a shooting inside a Washington DC pizzeriathat was also said to be implicated in sex trafficking.
I don’t know why these theorists are going to so much effort. The truth of the matter is staring us in the face, and it’s horrifying enough.
For the first time since the Great Recession, homelessness is on the rise. Last year the Guardian launched Outside in America, a series dedicated to to this crisis.
In a scrubby patch of marsh land next to the Silicon Valley headquarters of Facebook, one of the world’s richest companies, I visited men and womenwho had built primitive, unsteady homes from branches and string. Old furniture, backpacks, plastic bags, bikes and tyres sprawled in the mud. Celma Aguilar showed me the muddy pond where she washed with buckets. Gonzalo Apale said he was afraid to visit the doctor for the egg-sized tumor emerging near his cheekbone.
In Los Angeles, I rode down the city’s eponymous, concrete-lined river and saw cardboard habitations tucked into the eaves of bridges, like the most fragile and dangerous of aeries. In the redwoods north of San Francisco there is a toilet chair resembling the one that appears in the Arizona video. The residents of the forest homeless camp had tried to create some privacy by putting a few tarps around it. There was nothing sinister about it, as Nicolai Lisiukoff told me. It is literally the place he and his friends go to defecate, in the open, in the rain or cold. Afterwards they have to figure out what to do with plastic bags full of excreta.
“There’s this abject humiliation and embarrassment,” an Oakland woman named Mavin Carter-Griffin told me as she showed me her intricately constructed camp. “I’m astounded that my life is here.”
Of course you find things that seem incongruous in these camps: gardening equipment, toys. This is because people who have nothing are forced to comb through and recycle whatever they can find in dumpsters or on street corners. If you are collecting scrap metal to earn a few dollars, by the way, a stroller comes in useful.
In Arizona, the authorities have debunked the wild ideas. “There is nothing there that would validate the reporting on social media,” Ice said in a statement. “There is no indication this camp is being used for any type of criminal activity,” local police told the Arizona Daily Star.
People are straining to find a convoluted and conspiratorial reason for the awfulness they see on camera in Arizona. Perhaps we just need to accept the reality that thousands of Americans are living in squalid conditions that we wouldn’t deem acceptable in a refugee camp.