Craig Collins’s fifth-wheel camper is one of dozens tucked between tall ponderosa trees at Kit Carson RV Park in west Flagstaff. Collins has lived at the park with his girlfriend and newborn baby since last summer.
It wasn’t a free-wheeling, always-on-the-road lifestyle that brought him here, Collins said, but cost.
“I just realized that for sure it's gotta be cheaper to rent an RV space than pay $1,300-plus for an apartment or a house,” the Flagstaff resident said.
After putting down about $9,000 for his fifth wheel, Collins now pays $660 per month to rent a spot at Kit Carson, which is about half what he was paying to rent a house on Flagstaff’s east side.
Finances are tight in part because Collins is a student at Northern Arizona University, where he is studying mechanical engineering.
He is among a small but growing contingent of students who, faced with rising rents and scarce housing supply, have turned to fifth wheel-type campers as their full-time homes.
Managers at two year-round RV parks in town said they both have seen rising numbers of students signing up for site leases. Many say it’s less expensive than a dorm room or renting a room off campus, said Holly Savinelli, the assistant manager at Kit Carson. Over the winter, 19 of the park’s approximately 100 long-term residents were students, which is the highest proportion park managers have seen in at least three years, Savinelli said.
The ratio is about the same at Black Bart’s RV Park near Little America. There, 20 of the 90 long-term residents are students, said Jennifer Yazzie, co-manager of the park.
Yazzie said for many students, living in the park also allows them to get away from the hustle and bustle of campus.
Both parks have student rates that range from $490 at Black Bart's to $660 per month at Kit Carson. They also offer month-to-month leases, which allows students more flexibility, Yazzie said.
Often, the arrangement is made more affordable because students will borrow units from their parents or grandparents that have been sitting unused or barely used for years, said Lindsey Gabriel, co-manager at Black Bart’s.
“It’s on the up and coming," she said of camper living.
It was somewhat by chance that Danielle and Brian Broadstock happened upon the idea of moving into a camper trailer.
They were paying higher and higher rent at their home in Florida and rented an RV for a family vacation. After spending some time in it, they started to think, “We could live in one of these,” Danielle Broadstock said.
Soon after, they bought their 40-foot fifth wheel and they have been living in it full time with their two children, ages 2 and 4, for two years now. They shell out $425-per-month to pay off the fifth wheel plus $575 to rent their spot at Kit Carson, which includes an outdoor area, water and sewer hookups and free wireless internet.
It’s cheaper than any housing in town, Danielle Broadstock said. While their base housing costs are $1,000 each month, the latest survey from Housing Solutions of Northern Arizona shows a one-bedroom rents for an average of $1,161, while a two-bedroom is an average of $1,427.
Plus, the couple said they like that they’re not tied down by a lease, can go anywhere with the camper and are putting their money toward owning something rather than renting it.
It did take some adjusting and rearranging to make the RV workable, Danielle Broadstock said. They had to take out the dining table to fit a desk and her son’s clothes dresser, and the living room area serves triple duty as a playroom, dining room and bedroom for both children.
The family tried to apply for family housing at NAU but never got in, so this will likely be where they live until they buy a home, Danielle Broadstock said.
A convenient, but temporary option is the way Liz Bennett sees camper living as well. A sophomore at NAU, Bennett moved into a fifth wheel camper with a friend in November, squeezing her twin bed into a corner of the small living room. Most of her belongings are packed into a small closet or in plastic containers underneath the bed, her school books are stacked on top of her covers and she still stores some overflow items like extra bedsheets in her car.
Although she’s planning to move out this summer, Bennett said the RV park has been better than she expected — affordable, private and dog- and cat-friendly.
Bennett’s roommate, Teresa Wise, owns the trailer. Her parents helped her with the $9,000 initial cost and now she pays to lease a site with her earnings from a part-time job, said Wise, who is in her third year at NAU.
Bennett and Wise each pay $330 per month, which includes utilities, and because they’re both busy with school, work and extracurriculars they don’t see each other much in the trailer, Bennett said.
Both women said they had explored campus housing as another option but had trouble getting through the system. NAU spokeswoman Kim Ott said in an email that while the university prioritizes housing freshmen and sophomores on campus, all of the approximately 4,800 upperclassmen who applied by the necessary deadlines were able to be housed on campus this year.
Thomas Berg, on the other hand, said living in a dorm was never the route he wanted to go. The NAU freshman said he also isn’t an apartment person, which led him to buy a fifth wheel camper. He now has space for his two dogs, parking for his Jeep and other truck and room to put up a temporary garage-like structure for working on his cars.
Minus the initial investment for the trailer, “this is definitely one of the cheaper options,” Berg said.
When she was a young physician, Dr. Martha Gulati noticed that many of her mentors were prescribing vitamin E and folic acid to patients. Preliminary studies in the early 1990s had linked both supplements to a lower risk of heart disease.
She urged her father to pop the pills as well: “Dad, you should be on these vitamins, because every cardiologist is taking them or putting their patients on (them),” recalled Gulati, now chief of cardiology for the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.
But just a few years later, she found herself reversing course, after rigorous clinical trials found neither vitamin E nor folic acid supplements did anything to protect the heart. Even worse, studies linked high-dose vitamin E to a higher risk of heart failure, prostate cancer and death from any cause.
“‘You might want to stop taking (these),’” Gulati told her father.
More than half of Americans take vitamin supplements, including 68 percent of those age 65 and older, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. Among older adults, 29 percent take four or more supplements of any kind, according to a Journal of Nutrition study published in 2017.
Often, preliminary studies fuel irrational exuberance about a promising dietary supplement, leading millions of people to buy in to the trend. Many never stop. They continue even though more rigorous studies — which can take many years to complete — almost never find that vitamins prevent disease, and in some cases cause harm.
“The enthusiasm does tend to outpace the evidence,” said Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
There’s no conclusive evidence that dietary supplements prevent chronic disease in the average American, Manson said. And while a handful of vitamin and mineral studies have had positive results, those findings haven’t been strong enough to recommend supplements to the general U.S. public, she said.
The National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion since 1999 studying vitamins and minerals. Yet for “all the research we’ve done, we don’t have much to show for it,” said Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute.
A big part of the problem, Kramer said, could be that much nutrition research has been based on faulty assumptions, including the notion that people need more vitamins and minerals than a typical diet provides; that megadoses are always safe; and that scientists can boil down the benefits of vegetables like broccoli into a daily pill.
Vitamin-rich foods can cure diseases related to vitamin deficiency. Oranges and limes were famously shown to prevent scurvy in vitamin-deprived 18th-century sailors. And research has long shown that populations that eat a lot of fruits and vegetables tend to be healthier than others.
But when researchers tried to deliver the key ingredients of a healthy diet in a capsule, Kramer said, those efforts nearly always failed.
It’s possible that the chemicals in the fruits and vegetables on your plate work together in ways that scientists don’t fully understand — and which can’t be replicated in a tablet, said Marjorie McCullough, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society.
More important, perhaps, is that most Americans get plenty of the essentials, anyway. Although the Western diet has a lot of problems — too much sodium, sugar, saturated fat and calories, in general — it’s not short on vitamins, said Alice Lichtenstein, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
And although there are more than 90,000 dietary supplements from which to choose, federal health agencies and advisers still recommend that Americans meet their nutritional needs with food, especially fruits and vegetables.
Also, American food is highly fortified — with vitamin D in milk, iodine in salt, B vitamins in flour, even calcium in some brands of orange juice.
Without even realizing it, someone who eats a typical lunch or breakfast “is essentially eating a multivitamin,” said journalist Catherine Price, author of “Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.”
That can make studying vitamins even more complicated, Price said. Researchers may have trouble finding a true control group, with no exposure to supplemental vitamins. If everyone in a study is consuming fortified food, vitamins may appear less effective.
The body naturally regulates the levels of many nutrients, such as vitamin C and many B vitamins, Kramer said, by excreting what it doesn’t need in urine. He added: “It’s hard to avoid getting the full range of vitamins.”
Not all experts agree. Dr. Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says it’s reasonable to take a daily multivitamin “for insurance.” Willett said that clinical trials underestimate supplements’ true benefits because they aren’t long enough, often lasting five to 10 years. It could take decades to notice a lower rate of cancer or heart disease in vitamin takers, he said.
For Charlsa Bentley, 67, keeping up with the latest nutrition research can be frustrating. She stopped taking calcium, for example, after studies found it doesn’t protect against bone fractures. Additional studies suggest that calcium supplements increase the risk of kidney stones and heart disease.
“I faithfully chewed those calcium supplements, and then a study said they didn’t do any good at all,” said Bentley, from Austin, Texas. “It’s hard to know what’s effective and what’s not.”
Bentley still takes five supplements a day: a multivitamin to prevent dry eyes, magnesium to prevent cramps while exercising, red yeast rice to prevent diabetes, coenzyme Q10 for overall health and vitamin D based on her doctor’s recommendation.
Like many people who take dietary supplements, Bentley also exercises regularly — playing tennis three to four times a week — and watches what she eats.
People who take vitamins tend to be healthier, wealthier and better educated than those who don’t, Kramer said. They are probably less likely to succumb to heart disease or cancer, whether they take supplements or not. That can skew research results, making vitamin pills seem more effective than they really are.
Preliminary findings can also lead researchers to the wrong conclusions.
For example, scientists have long observed that people with high levels of an amino acid called homocysteine are more likely to have heart attacks. Because folic acid can lower homocysteine levels, researchers once hoped that folic acid supplements would prevent heart attacks and strokes.
In a series of clinical trials, folic acid pills lowered homocysteine levels but had no overall benefit for heart disease, Lichtenstein said.
When studies of large populations showed that people who eat lots of seafood had fewer heart attacks, many assumed that the benefits came from the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, Lichtenstein said.
Rigorous studies have failed to show that fish oil supplements prevent heart attacks. A clinical trial of fish oil pills and vitamin D, whose results are expected to be released within the year, may provide clearer questions about whether they prevent disease.
But it’s possible the benefits of sardines and salmon have nothing to do with fish oil, Lichtenstein said. People who have fish for dinner may be healthier due to what they don’t eat, such as meatloaf and cheeseburgers.
“Eating fish is probably a good thing, but we haven’t been able to show that taking fish oil (supplements) does anything for you,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Taking megadoses of vitamins and minerals, using amounts that people could never consume through food alone, could be even more problematic.
“There’s something appealing about taking a natural product, even if you’re taking it in a way that is totally unnatural,” Price said.
Early studies, for example, suggested that beta carotene, a substance found in carrots, might help prevent cancer.
In the tiny amounts provided by fruits and vegetables, beta carotene and similar substances appear to protect the body from a process called oxidation, which damages healthy cells, said Dr. Edgar Miller, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Experts were shocked when two large, well-designed studies in the 1990s found that beta carotene pills actually increased lung cancer rates. Likewise, a clinical trial published in 2011 found that vitamin E, also an antioxidant, increased the risk of prostate cancer in men by 17 percent. Such studies reminded researchers that oxidation isn’t all bad; it helps kill bacteria and malignant cells, wiping them out before they can grow into tumors, Miller said.
“Vitamins are not inert,” said Dr. Eric Klein, a prostate cancer expert at the Cleveland Clinic who led the vitamin E study. “They are biologically active agents. We have to think of them in the same way as drugs. If you take too high a dose of them, they cause side effects.”
Gulati, the physician in Phoenix, said her early experience with recommending supplements to her father taught her to be more cautious. She said she’s waiting for the results of large studies — such as the trial of fish oil and vitamin D — to guide her advice on vitamins and supplements.
“We should be responsible physicians,” she said, “and wait for the data.”
The past six months were the sixth-driest on record for Flagstaff, and forecasts for the next three months do not suggest relief is coming anytime soon.
From October 1 through March 30, Flagstaff received just over 5 inches of precipitation, less than half of the average 11.5 inches for the period.
“Even though a few precipitation events could occur over northern Arizona through June, odds are still tilted in favor of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation through June,” National Weather Service officials wrote in the 90-day forecast outlook.
Forecasts said most of northern Arizona is predicted to continue to have less than half of the normal precipitation in the next 90 days.
The period for both Winslow and Prescott was the driest on record for both cities.
September 1 through November 30 was the driest fall on record in Flagstaff dating back to 1898. During that period, the area received only 0.43 inches of precipitation.
As of March 27, the eastern portion of Coconino County was experiencing “extreme drought conditions,” while the majority of the rest of the county was in “severe drought conditions,” according to the National Weather Service. Drought conditions worsened for all of northern Arizona in March.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared 12 Arizona counties, including Coconino County, “primary natural disaster areas” due to prolonged drought. Farmers and ranchers in eligible counties can apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency to help cover part of their actual losses due to the disaster.
All of Navajo and Apache counties were in “extreme drought conditions.”
For April and May, the National Interagency Fire Center predicts near normal significant wildfire potential for northern Arizona, with some portions of northern Arizona expected to experience above normal wildfire potential in June.
The Weather Service is forecasting sunny skies Sunday with a high temperature of 65 degrees. By Tuesday, the high is forecast to reach 70 degrees.
While Arizona has one of the nation’s highest child-poverty rates, federal money intended to help the poorest families is instead being spent here on foster care, adoptions and services to children who have been removed from their families.
Arizona spent $469 million in 2015 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF funds, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Of that total, 8 percent went to the three objectives established for the federal program: child-care help, job training and direct cash assistance to families.
By contrast, 49 percent of the funding went to the Department of Child Safety, primarily for services rendered once a child has been removed from his or her home after allegations of neglect or abuse. (The remainder went to state agency operating costs and other programs such as domestic violence prevention and services for the elderly.)
Most states spend some TANF money on child abuse and neglect cases, but the average is about 7 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ analysis of the federal records.
There is a “yawning gap” when it comes to Arizona’s practices, said Joshua Oehler, economic policy analyst with the Children’s Action Alliance.
“This definitely is concerning for us. If you want people to go from welfare to work, they need to have child care,” he said. “It’s vitally important for families to receive this help.”
While it’s legal and within the state’s wide discretion to use the funds on cases related to child abuse and neglect, “that’s not what the TANF funds are for,” said Karen McLaughlin, director of budget and research for Arizona’s Children’s Action Alliance. “We think both programs need to be funded adequately,” she said, referring to direct help for impoverished families as well as money for child neglect or abuse cases.
Arizona removes children from their homes due to allegations of abuse or neglect at one of the highest rates in the nation. As of mid-March, there were 17,200 children in out-of-home care.
That’s one of the primary reasons the state has shifted so much TANF funding to DCS, said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey. “This spending is reflective of a need that exists in child safety,” he said.
“We are starting to see some success in terms of reducing backlog and the number of kids in out-of-home care,” Scarpinato added. The number of children in state care now is significantly lower, down from nearly 20,000 just a couple of years ago, he said.
Those investments in the Department of Child Safety mean less for other families.
Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy examined whether focusing on DCS cases is actually compounding the crisis by leaving too many families — the ones that don’t face allegations of child neglect or abuse — without help early on.
Morrison Institute Director Thom Reilly concluded that while “prioritizing the competing demands of moving parents into the workforce, preserving families and protecting children is not an easy balance for states,” he found these needs to be interrelated.
“Such policy and fiscal decisions are making it more challenging for poor families with children to enter the workforce,” Reilly wrote in a 2015 report. “So, what on the surface may seem to be a solution for the state’s underfunded and underperforming child welfare system — cutting benefits to poor families and shifting TANF funds to the child welfare system — may very well be exacerbating Arizona’s child welfare problem.”
During fiscal year 2015, roughly 23 out of every 100 families living in poverty received cash assistance through TANF nationwide. In Arizona, 10 or fewer out of every 100 families received that help.
In Arizona, TANF “hasn’t done its job, largely as a result of the lack of investment through child care support, work activity supports and training people to get good paying, stable jobs,” Children’s Action Alliance’s Oehler said. “It really takes a lot of resources and we’re not devoting those dollars to that.”
The number of children living in poverty in Pima County grew from 22 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports. Statewide, 25 percent of children lived in poverty as of 2015, a Kids Count report shows, ranking Arizona 43rd highest in child-poverty rates.
Two years ago, Arizona became the nation’s strictest state in the length of time a family can get TANF benefits, reducing help from two years to one.
There is a current legislative proposal that would reinstate the two-year plan. “We do have some exceptions in there, including requiring people to comply with job searches and getting your kids to school,” Scarpinato said. The school attendance rate, a controversial part of the measure, is expected to be 90 percent.
“The reason for that is we should be rewarding good behavior and incentivize people to find work,” he said. “The best way to break the cycle of poverty is to make sure your children are getting an education and getting to school.”
He said that as the number of children in out-of-home care due to allegations of neglect or abuse or continues to decrease, Arizona will re-evaluate how it spends TANF dollars.
As of Feb. 3, there were 4,190 families and 7,369 children on the waiting list for TANF-subsidized child care statewide, Department of Economic Security data shows. In Pima County, there were 983 families and 1,669 children.
Yadell Urrea’s name is on that waiting list.
As her daughter approached her first birthday, and the baby’s father struggled to find full-time employment, Urrea knew the trio needed more income.
She secured a job at a nursery school more than a month ago, and prior to that contacted DES, wondering if she could get some help with child-care costs. She takes her 18-month-old with her to her workplace, where she receives child care that her parents pay for.
“We were barely making it paycheck to paycheck with the bills,” Urrea said. There’s never money left over to buy clothing or other things that inevitably come up and help with child care would ease that tremendously, she said, until her partner can find more work.
Urrea said she even had to wait to preregister to get on the waiting list. Recently, she was able to get her name listed and now, she’s been told, she’ll need to wait about a year.
“Their priorities are to help the families that are involved in DCS, but they should also help the families that are working hard as well,” she said.
“When there is a family, the idea is that ‘No, you could do it on your own,’ ” she said. “What they’ve told us in the past is that, if you’re not in a DCS case, there’s no point in applying.”
Families referred for child care assistance through DCS are not subject to the waiting list.
An estimated $49 million will be spent on child care subsidies for DCS-involved families in 2017, with funding coming from the state’s general fund, the federal Child Care and Development Fund and other federal funds.
Less cash assistance
As poverty numbers climbed, the number of Pima County children receiving help through TANF cash assistance dropped from 17,552 in 2009 to 6,329 in 2015.
Child-care subsidies, according to DES records, were at their highest in 2009 when $15 million was earmarked for that help. It’s been down to $2.7 million for the last few fiscal years and is projected to be the same in fiscal year 2016. It hit its lowest point in nearly 10 years in 2012, at $717,800.
“Eligibility for TANF is so low, we’re talking about the most vulnerable people in our state,” said Angie Rodgers, president of Arizona Food Banks.
Initially, when TANF was created in 1996, very little of the funding was going to cases involving child abuse and neglect, she said, but now, “it’s completely flipped around.”
The DCS “definitely needs a lot of help,” Rodgers said, “but it doesn’t have to be on the backs of poor kids.”