If you travel westbound on the Red Mountain Freeway you have probably wondered about the encampment that has grown up on the north side at McKellips Road. The American flag flies proudly above a small group of shelters that is designated as Alpha Camp.
According to Lewis Arthur, Alpha Camp was created by a group called Veterans on Patrol (VOP). Arthur is the group’s founder and commander. VOP describes itself as an informal organization of military veterans on a search and rescue mission to recover homeless military veterans in Arizona. The organization supports homeless veteran needs through donations but does not accept money.
The camp began to take shape last summer. Approximately 16-18 veterans, some with family, call the camp home. Originally, the camp was located on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Reservation just south of the Salt River. In December, the tribal leaders requested the camp be moved. The move was a short one of several hundred yards to land that is owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). A large sign at the camp entrance clearly notes ADOT’s ownership and a prohibition against trespassing. To date, neither the state of Arizona or Mesa city officials have made public comment regarding the status of the camp but, for now, there seems to be an unofficial “hands off” approach to the future of the site.
Jeff Kagen, resource director for Alpha Camp, says the residents receive “wonderful support from the Mesa community.” Several community groups have provided food, transportation and other things that sustain camp members.
One of the more interesting groups supporting the camp is the Bulwarks Motorcycle Club. Bulwark members provide donations and security for Alpha Camp. Earlier this month, they had an “Awareness Ride” of about 15 club members. The ride originated in Apache Junction and ended at Alpha Camp. A large bearded member of the Bulwarks, who identified himself only as “Thong,” commented that “the government has let them down” and the Bulwarks are stepping in to help.
Camp rules are strict. Everyone contributes to the welfare of the others in camp. Drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited. This regimented life is familiar and even comfortable to service veterans.
Veterans on Patrol has established three other camps in Arizona. Bravo camp is in Tuscon, Camp Charlie in Nogales and Delta Base in Sierra Vista. Each camp is different, but the aim is the same. VOP searches for homeless veterans and rescues them from the streets and then begins to address each veteran’s special needs.
There are signs that dot the landscape of Alpha Camp. Some are inspirational, but one stands in stark contrast and reminds visitors and residents alike that 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Veterans on Patrol through encampments like Alpha Camp have taken upon themselves to change this grim reality.
– Ted Wendel is staff photographer for MyNewsMesa.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.