They were there almost all afternoon. One of the men, Aaron Taber, wore a white t-shirt, black pants, black tennis shoes and rainbow tinted aviator style sunglasses. He sporadically smoked cigarettes as the band Mumford and Sons played softly from his iPad. Music, he said, is his passion.
The man sitting next to him, Cole, offered that he is bipolar. Taber, Cole said, saved his life and stopped him from committing suicide. Taber commanded the respect of Cole, who sang his friend's praises. Taber announced he would be the spokesman when approached for an interview.
The men said they are homeless, and that they count as just two of several individuals camping on city-owned property in Graham. City officials recently said citizens have complained over the last three to four months, and the issue has led to the passage of a new ordinance banning unauthorized camping and related activities on public lands. The agenda item was passed at Thursday's city council meeting, and authorities' concerns center around safety and hygiene.
“I reached out to the churches, to the crisis center, to various community organizations,” Taber said. “Could not find a place to live. I did what I could do, and that was go out there and try to survive. That's all I'm trying to do.”
Taber, along with his half-sister Danielle Sunde, came to Graham from Wisconsin to settle affairs after his father died, and they have since fallen on hard times, he said.
The two set up a camp behind Shawnee Park in an area of heavy overgrowth which police urged the pair to abandon, at threat of citation, after a nearby sewer leak was found.
Aaron Taber and half-sister Danielle Sunde came to Graham in January after Taber's father passed away. The siblings say that ran into some hard times and don t currently have a home so they were camping in the woods behind Shawnee Park. The City of Graham passed an ordinance Thursday to stop such camping, something they say is a hygiene and safety concern. (Casey Holder)
If not for the leak, the city would not have known they were there, said Graham Police Chief Tony Widner. The siblings are now couch-surfing, Taber said, crashing anywhere they can to stay out of the woods. If given the option, he would prefer to fend for himself rather than rely on others, he added.
“When the city does allow camping, we only allow camping in places where there are utilities, toiletries, a lot more sanitary conditions,” Widner said. “What we are finding back there is they are building camps and basically sleeping in the open. There is no protection from any type of outdoor predators or pests. They had none of the facilities that would be required for the standard of living, and there was a concern for their health and welfare.”
Parks are for the enjoyment of the public, Widner added, and if there was some kind of emergency, he worries that these individuals would be hard to locate for assistance.
And while Taber said that he is sometimes harassed by officers, City Manager David Casteel pointed out the Graham Police Department has worked to be as compassionate as possible in dealing with this issue.
“They are not saying ‘we know you're down on your luck, too bad.' They've been saying ‘OK, try to find a place to live, let us call somebody for you, and let's see if there is a way we can help you,'” Casteel said. “They're very compassionate about it, which I think speaks a lot to our police department and our police chief, that they're trying to do right by the person who is down on their luck. But, you know, that person can't impose unsanitary facilities or impose on neighbors, just like no other person could.”
Read the entire story in this weekend's Graham Leader.