Angela from Santa Cruz is not semantically homeless. The 19-year-old has supportive parents, so much so that they pay her cell phone bill so that they can reach her on the road. Because, although Angela has a house that she can live in, the road is where she chooses to be. Angela is not homeless; she is traveling.
This bit of semantics is the true distinction between the permanent “bums” on Newport Avenue (most vocally represented by Boston James, www.bostonjames.com, the “first homeless man on the internet”), and the groups of transient youth known as the Kids. “Traveling” is the label that binds them together. They are without a home by choice.
Within this group, as in any, there are thousands of variations. Angela and her partner Jay are one such variant. Jay, 27, is from New York, and has been traveling for several years. Angela met him in Santa Cruz, and decided that she wanted to join him. Together they have been traveling for about a month, with the blessing of her parents.
“They love him,” says Angela, smiling from under a curtain of hair. She is bent over her work, twisting copper wire around stones to make jewelry to sell. The couple is seeing the country this way, hitching rides from town to town. Their belongings are few, their bills nonexistent, and their faith in the kindness of others boundless.
“We just choose to live in a way that most people don’t, or are afraid of,” says Jay, his serious face half-covered in a thick black beard, “We want to be mobile. This land is ours, yours too.”
Jay and Angela say they make more than enough money to live by selling jewelry. They never, Angela assures me, beg for money.
“If we had a storefront, we’d be just like them,” Jay says, “them” meaning all the people who complain about the Kids.
The complaints escalated recently with the arrest of a young man who was swimming naked near the pier (hereafter referred to as the Swimmer). The Swimmer allegedly resisted arrest, and was forcibly restrained and tasered, then taken to jail. Although the sequence of events varies depending on whose account you hear, there is no disagreement as to whether the Swimmer was on some sort of drug.
“That kid was way too high,” says Jeffrey, another traveler, shaking his head.
Jeffrey is 23, and has been traveling since he was 14. He has traveled alone and with others up and down the west coast.
He was on the grass at the end of Newport when the lifeguards first pulled the Swimmer out of the water and handed him his shorts. The way Jeffrey tells it, he was watching the scene and laughing about how high the Swimmer was. When the Swimmer walked away and sat on the sea wall to put his shorts back on, things sped up, and the lifeguards were on him quickly, grabbing him around the neck and squeezing in his arms while calling for police back-up.
Jeffrey claims that he stood and yelled for the lifeguards to stop. He walked toward the scene yelling at the lifeguards as cop cars sped down Abbott behind him. Within moments a lifeguard had him on the ground in a choke-hold. He spent the next five days in the county jail.
“I was released on all charges, and I was assaulted,” says Jeffrey, “I’m taking this to civil court.”
He says he was told that he was in jail because he had a previous warrant out for his arrest, but that the warrant was never mentioned at his court date. Instead he was held up for resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, based on a report filed by a policewoman he claims he never saw before he was on the ground.
His five days in jail were a miserable experience, in which he was hassled by the guards, who he says are the worst people in jail, and fed food that he described as “like meat from rats or dead people from another county jail.”
Although angry, and bent on getting justice, Jeffrey is reasonable when it comes to the police. Policemen have helped him in the past, he says, and explains that when he has approached police as civil servants, rather than as cops, he has received kind treatment.
“There are stupid bums who think that all the time cops are against them, when they can give them so much help,” Jeffrey says. He leaves unspoken the message behind his words, that he is not that type of bum, and that people on the street are as different from each other as people in houses are.
And what happened to the Swimmer? Police and community members assumed that the Swimmer was one of the Kids, but Jeffrey shakes his head again at this assumption.
“I didn’t see that guy in jail, he probably got bailed by his parents,” he shrugs, “He’s a college student who lives in PB. He wasn’t traveling.”
Regardless of his status, the Swimmer’s very public arrest has caused problems for the Kids in Ocean Beach. Jo and Kamy, two 19-year-olds from Quebec, are very careful to keep away from the sea wall and the groups of Kids that congregate there, soaking up the much-needed sun after weeks of rain and cold.
Jo and Kamy are part of a street band, L’Ensemble Tourneuis. Jo plays the violin, and Kamy balances on a ball and juggles bowling pins. They have been hassled by police for illegal busking in other areas of San Diego, but not in Ocean Beach. What they do get hassled for is sleeping.
“When you play music and you play something good, people love it so police leave you alone,” says Jo, “When you’re sleeping and not doing anything, that is when they come for you.”
The members of L’Ensemble Tourneuis sleep on the streets at night, and they like it. Jo explains, in halting English, that when he wakes up on the street he feels good, and full of energy.
“When you sleep on the couch or the bed, you get lazy,” he says, as Kamy laughs, nodding. Kamy joined L’Ensemble Tourneuis about a month ago, after traveling on her own for a year and a half. She has hitchhiked across Canada and down the coast. Hitching alone, as a woman, can be different than it is for Angela and Jay, who have only had positive experiences.
“Things happen,” she says, “it is awkward. I ask them, what does your wife think? Pull over and let me out.”
Kamy knows the all-male members of L’Ensemble Tourneuis from Montreal, where they all go to school together. The group has been traveling off and on, whenever they have school breaks, for four years.
Despite their vastly different backgrounds and ways of living, these Kids all face similar pressures, which unite them. Although they all profess distaste for being lumped in with a group, there is a kinship, demonstrated by Jeff’s urge to stick up for the Swimmer, who he assumed to be a fellow Kid.
They all have the same essential need as well – they have chosen a very different lifestyle, and just want to be left in peace to live it.
“The people who are the most vulnerable – homeless people, minorities – get the brunt of the system, always,” says Jay, a hit of frustration in his voice. He raises his eyes from the piece of jewelry that he is crafting and looks at me, his words echoing the frustration of Jo and Kamy, Jeffrey, and Angela:
“Since when do you have to be paying rent or mortgage to have rights?”
Stay tuned, more information on the identity and fate of the Swimmer to follow.