For weeks, starting in he beginning of May, I was getting up early and taking walks around Ocean Beach. I was looking for the groups of kids (teens and twenty-something’s mostly), who I have heard described as “Pier Kids”, “Anarchist Kids”, “Street Kids”, “Kids with backpacks”, and “Those kids who wear a lot of brown and have dogs, and sometimes cats on leashes”. I will refer to them here as The Kids. The Kids are, in fact, the young and the homeless.
For weeks I wasn’t finding anyone. I felt this strange, surreal parallel with department stores, where sales people are sniffing all over me until I have a question, and then I can’t find one anywhere. Where had The Kids gone? I checked all the haunts I knew about – under the pier, outside People’s, in front of Rite-Aid, down the cliffs, and anywhere really on Newport. I couldn’t find a trace. I asked friends, and the general response I got was:
“Oh yeah, I see them all the time,” pause, “Not lately though, I guess. Maybe it got too cold or something.”
I was continually frustrated. I have wanted to spend some time with these Kids for a long time, to talk to them. I have met various incarnations of the same group in almost every town I’ve lived. I’ve given money to some, and pet their dogs.
In Vermont, one of The Kids came to a party at my place, selling crystals. In Arizona, dumpster diving had become somewhat of a fashion among college students, since all The Kids were doing it so successfully.
In Missouri, I worked at a restaurant that set aside soup for The Kids, who had formed a specific group there and called themselves Frigguns. I also watched a Friggun gleefully burn a dollar bill in a campfire once. At the time I was infuriated, thinking about my student loans. Now, well, I’ve grown more ambivalent.
The Kids I’ve met in the past have all seemed physically capable, smart, and socially comfortable. Homelessness was not their dead end, or their only option. Homelessness, for The Kids, is a conscious decision.
Amidst my frustration, I took a trip to see friends in Arizona. There I met C. C was sitting cross-legged on the ground outside a bar in Prescott, AZ. Raucous music blared from inside, and a drunken woman staggered out, breasts near popping out of her shirt, with a man in tow, fondling her. This didn’t faze C. She looked like any other twenty-something student, with dark curly hair and strong, attractive features. She rolled a cigarette, looked up, and smiled widely.
“Hey, do you have any change to spare?” she asked, in a polite tone like someone asking for the bus route, or the way to the library.
Two years ago, a climbing accident left C with severe skull trauma, and doctors told her that she was not allowed to engage in any high-impact physical activity. This, for C, meant an end to her pursuit of a degree in wilderness education. If she couldn’t climb, hike, or bike, she couldn’t do what she wanted to – she’d have to find another dream.
She responded by dropping out of college, and her lifestyle changed in radical ways. Her schedule still follows the rhythm of school, semesters and seasons, but consists now of panhandling and dumpster diving in Arizona all winter, and hitchhiking all summer.
“This summer I’m trying to decide between a butcher knife and a razor,” says C, discussing what defense to take along, “Sometimes you do get in sketchy situations, but the good ones make it all worth it. It’s worth it.”
C is not alone. There are hundreds, probably thousands like her in the U.S., young people who are mentally and physically capable, not addicts, who choose to live a life of homelessness. They have families – C plans to hitchhike to the east coast for a family reunion mid-summer – and they have friends. In fact, through the winter C usually pitches a tent in a series of friends yards, paying them back by cooking them food that she salvaged from grocery store dumpsters (dumpster diving) and cleaning house. They are not lonely, destitute, or without options. This is a choice.
“San Diego,” C muses, when I tell her where I live, “Yeah, I’ve been there. San Diego is an easy place to get to, but it’s hard to get out of.”
I returned to San Diego with an even stronger drive to find The Kids. Ocean Beach is a San Diego haven for The Kids, and they settle here in waves, only to move on again when they get enough change, a ride, or a rousting out by the cops after too many neighborhood complaints.
I started to wonder if the last was maybe a reason for their recent disappearance. A source overheard a command being given at an OB Mainstreet Association Meeting: “If you see any of those kids with backpacks, call the police.” Now I give credit to OBMA for trying to keep the streets clean – The Kids aren’t known for cleaning up after their medley of dogs or themselves – but isn’t an automatic police call possibly a bit excessive, just because someone’s wearing a backpack? If that were a crime, every student in town and every hostel guest would be under lock and key.
Thus I pondered their disappearance, and continued to take a stroll, voice recorder in my bag, looking for The Kids. I tended to go early in the mornings, assuming that The Kids, like other cultures that sleep outside, rise with the sun. I also made a habit of scoping out Newport on weekend nights, on my way to or from the bars, figuring that that was probably an ideal time to panhandle.
I still haven’t found The Kids, but hope to as the summer roles in again and they return to OB. In the midst of world economic turmoil, the next great upheaval in capitalism, The Kids seem impervious and removed. They never had anything, so they lost nothing. My monthly panic as rent day approaches is a non-existent phenomenon for them. And the “Great Unease” of all the twenty-somethings I know (a lot, myself being one), the fear that nothing will actually ever come of our fancy educations, that upward mobility is at a stand-still – this doesn’t apply to The Kids.
So I’m looking at The Kids differently lately. I used to think they were just slackers, but now that everyone is broke, they seem a little wiser. I have no idea why we’re here, existing on this planet, but I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with money or bragging rights (neither of which do The Kids possess). The Kids, walking on slack-lines, eating garbage-salvaged burritos, laying in the sun with their dogs, and always planning the hitch to the next town, the next state, they seem, well, pretty happy. C in Arizona loves her lifestyle, and doesn’t seem to have any embarrassment when she talks to former college friends, people who have gone on to careers and offices.
How far are any of us from the street anyway, and what is the difference between seeking out the lifestyle as opposed to being stuck in it? Are these kids what much of society classifies them as – voluntary leeches – or do they have a valid argument for dropping out of the accepted route? I don’t know the answers, but would welcome any conversation on this topic. I continue to look for The Kids, and hopefully will have more information on them soon.