METRO PARKS Squatters rewarded with leases to land
For keeping the property safe and clean, two men will get to stay on the land for free.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- The lettering has worn off the aluminum bat by Sam Graham's door, but it still gives peace of mind.
And Graham feels even more secure now that he and a fellow squatter have cleaned up an area once overrun by drug addicts, drunks and prostitutes.
For keeping Whittier Peninsula safe and clean, a conservation group is about to give the buddies a status not normally attached to those with no address: a lease to stay on the land for free.
Metro Parks, which owns 10 acres on the peninsula and leases about 40 more from the city, hopes to develop the area by late next year into a riverfront park with trails, an Audubon Center and a wildlife observation area.
In many cases, cleanup for such a development would begin with chasing out squatters. Metro Parks Deputy Director Lawrence Peck had another idea.
"They've always been very decent and very cordial," Peck said. "They've treated us with respect; we've treated them with respect. And I decided we needed to kind of establish a formal agreement here because this is a very unique situation."
The agreement being negotiated would allow Graham and Roger Farley to stay as long as they keep the property mowed, clean and safe. Metro Parks would have the right to ask them to leave at any time, but Peck expects the pair to remain until the park development begins.
Although self-policing in the homeless community is common, Michael Stoops, the acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he'd never heard of a landowner rewarding conscientious squatters with legal protection.
Whittier Peninsula leans into a bend in the Scioto River, with trees that frame the downtown skyline. Farley, 61, arrived almost three years ago after his mother died, he lost his job and his fiancee kicked him out. Graham, 43, pitched his tent when he had a falling out with his roommate two years ago.
The two became fast friends as they pieced together homes of plywood, tarp and tin in a clearing near an abandoned warehouse. As they began to take more pride in the property, they became protective. So when a crack addict challenged the frail Farley to fight and threatened the fit, broad-shouldered Graham, the two teamed up to chase him out of the camp.
After that, Graham said, "it was like clockwork" on the rest of the men bringing in prostitutes and drugs. A new padlocked gate at the gravel driveway and vigilant watchdog keep the undesirables out at night.
Graham mines and sells the metal he finds in a scrap yard down the rutty road that borders the camp, to afford little luxuries like the GT One cigarettes Farley likes.
He has dug up more than 400 tons of copper, stainless steel, aluminum and bronze and has about $10,000 invested in certificates of deposit to help him ride through the downtimes. He's also stockpiled plenty of steel, waiting for the market price to bounce back.
He sometimes works 14-hour days to support himself and Farley, who cleans the mined metal, cooks and tends to the jalapenos, bell peppers and brussels sprouts in the garden.
The camaraderie gives both men reason to laugh easily, and, over jabs about Farley's three ex-wives and Graham's mediocre cooking skills, the bond is evident.
Looking to the future
Both plan to expand and renovate their homes. Farley wants to put down shag carpeting a friend gave him and repaint, since the kerosene heater that helps get him through the winters has blackened his walls.
"Things aren't always what they seem," Graham said. "We're not homeless; we're addressless."
In Graham's home, the bed runs the length of the cramped bedroom, where a Fifth Third Bank sign serves as one of the walls. A shelf above the full-length couch holds animal crackers, Fabric Care and a stack of DVDs that Graham watches on a portable player he bought so his daughter could watch her cartoons. Six-year-old Sammy stays with her father on the weekends.
The two friends aren't certain what they will do when Metro Parks asks them to move on. Graham hopes he'll have enough saved up to continue to support Farley, but his plans are focused on Sammy.
"I just want to see my daughter through college," he said. "I don't care if I'm in a refrigerator box and they're kicking me. I owe her that."