You see them sitting downtown;
sometimes in groups, with guitars, dogs, dreadlocks, booze; aggressively panhandling, hanging out in storefronts on the sidewalks—the traveling homeless. The “houseless.” With a sit/lie ordinance headed for the city council dais, the citizens of Chico are heavily divided. What can we do about these vagabonds? Will a blanket ordinance solve our issues? Will it help give the Chico Police Department more tools to work with? Or is it flying in the face of liberty and the Constitution? Will it even work, when it has already proven to be incredibly ineffective in other homeless-plagued cities? Before we hoist our pitchforks and head downtown, let’s put a laser beam on the homeless demographic we’re most concerned about and find out what we can about the travelers: the people who choose to follow the wanderlust. Synthesis put a call out on the “Life In Chico” Facebook page for past and present gypsies to ask them directly why they chose this lifestyle, and what they would do if they were us.
The Steger Family Took It On The Road
The first person I spoke with had a different type of experience as a traveler. Ricardo Steger had a college degree, lived out of his car, and his traveling companions were his [now ex-] wife and three-year-old daughter. Tired of being in the cold, they traveled south from Colorado along the pre-Katrina Gulf Coast, exploring the cities, beaches, and national forests. “We were just camping and hanging out and exploring with no particular time table,” says Steger. He planned his journey around places where he could camp for free in national parks. When he needed money he would “hit the temp agencies and get day jobs.” He would do all manner of random day-labor jobs, “from manufacturing to chopping lettuce in a salad factory. It was the coldest job I’d ever had; it was freezing in the salad factory,” he laughs. He had some scary moments on the road, but by and large, people were welcoming and kind. He wasn’t a panhandler, he wasn’t making a political statement; he “just wanted to be free and enjoy life.”
Now, as a Chico resident, Steger is familiar with the homeless issues. “I don’t have any problem with people doing what they wanna do. I have a problem with people that are gonna camp out downtown and then think that I need to support them [when they] aggressively panhandle—which does happen here; [it’s] not SO bad, but they’re insistent.” He goes on to say, “it’s a nice place to camp out here: there’s plenty of food, nobody bothers you, it’s a decent place to be if you’re that kind of homeless person. But if you’re able-bodied enough to stand there and ask for money, then you’re able-bodied enough to go down and get day work. There always work to do. I’ve traveled across 35 states and I’ve never ever had difficulty finding work. If you’re willing to do it, there you go. Over on 20th street you’ve got one guy with a sign saying ‘Will Work For Food’ and then you’ve got another guy behind him twirling a sign for a store; it’s kind of a funny counterpoint because they’re doing [essentially] the same thing. That one has a job, he’s getting paid, and this one’s begging and probably making more money.”
Steger added, “I was plugged into the Rainbow Family, which kinda came out of the hippie movement in the early ‘70s. People get together to pray for world peace, but you can go there and it’s completely free—money is discouraged. You can show up there and get fed. And if you want to volunteer and help in the kitchens you can; barter and trade is a way of functioning there. You can travel from gathering to gathering to gathering, year-round. I went last summer and it might be the last one I go to for a while. I went there and found that the number of people who were not contributing but were taking advantage was far greater than the people who were trying to make it happen.”
The Local Kid
Lucas Dean is 21-year-old traveling kid; his favorite quote is, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” Right now he’s gone legit. He’s living in Vegas in an apartment and he’s got a job. Dean said, “My job title is ‘Dunie’. I’m a tour guide in the dunes just outside Las Vegas, and I lead a pack of adventurous tourists safely through the dunes on dune buggies. I mean, after a while it does become just another job, but when I start feeling that way I just slap myself and think of all the other shitty jobs out there—including the one I left a year ago to be ‘home free’ and travel.” He’s saving up his Dunie money to do some more traveling. When I asked him about the term “homefree”, I said that the sound of it seemed like it had the implication of choice. Dean said, “Totally, I think it is, but also in my experience for a lot of others out there, it isn’t always a choice. But each and every person/story is unique.” And being homefree for Dean came about quite by accident.
“For me [it] was all choice. And all driven by wanderlust. Just a desire to see the world. After an exchange trip through Red Bluff high school and Graz, Austria, I got a taste for travel. I worked really hard after I graduated so I could do a full Europe trip, which was incredibly under-funded, which [then] led me to hitchhiking around Europe. At the time I honestly didn’t know anyone else still did this, and thought I was kind of unique for it. After that my life really changed, and I started hitchhiking around California to see friends and whatnot on my days off from work. I was about to quit my job at Staples until I got promoted. I made an agreement to work for a full year, but after six months I became a bit angry and even slightly depressed because I was chained down. I took advantage of paid vacation twice. The second time I flew to Boston to visit a guy I had met on Facebook. I packed my bag, and never came back from vacation, even though I had a round-trip ticket. This resulted in 10 months of travel—hitchhiking, train hopping, and walking—around the country.”
I asked him how he got money for food and he said, “Once [my savings] ran out I started flying signs sitting on street corners, and at freeway off-ramps. I’d go to the occasional bum feed in smaller towns, and dumpster dive. I typically don’t like those [bum feeds] though, because I don’t like most ‘homebums’ I have met (homebum being that [local] homeless man that you always see around). And believe it or not, a lot of people that see me walking down the street have helped me out, or when I’m hitchhiking my rides semi-frequently hook it up with food, or a place to sleep, or even money.”
If you ran into Dean on the street, you’d have no trouble identifying him as a traveler. I explained the situation we’re encountering here in Chico and he confessed, “Well, I’ve been guilty of hanging around in front of businesses myself. And I’ve been kicked out of more places than I can count. But I always leave respectfully. I understand the business side of it. I wish other kids did as well, because when they’re rude about being asked to leave, it makes everyone in the future have a bad taste for us. But I also feel like if a person is not harassing anyone, is not littering or defacing anything, is just avoiding the rain, or heat of the summer in the shade, even being a paying customer…I always try to buy at least a drink if I’m going to loiter, out of respect…that there should be no issue.”
Would a sit/lie ordinance affect Dean and his fellow travelers? “No. San Francisco has a no-sit law on the sidewalks, but there are more homeless people [there] than is even imaginable,” he says. “I think younger people are always going to be less considerate. I’m guilty at times, but I do try my best to be the best. I personally feel if I can change even one person’s mind about the lifestyle, that I’ve done something right. But you have to remember, the people who are on the streets by choice are ‘fuck the system’ types of people. They don’t care about laws.”
It seems like drugs and alcohol play a large part in the traveling homefree lifestyle. Dean is uniquely straight-edge. Doesn’t do drugs, drink, or smoke. But he agrees that it’s definitely a driving factor in daily vagabond life. Although, he has his own philosophy when it comes to judging drug and alcohol abuse: “I think that people who have jobs, live in homes, and function in society use [drugs] just as much, sometimes more than people who live on the streets. The difference is, people on the streets don’t have closed doors, and we have no responsibilities, so we can abuse it a little more.”
I asked Dean if he felt like he could go home. “I can go home. Always. I know that. And if I absolutely needed to, I would. I’m not going to be that martyr who refuses to help himself out because of disagreements. However, I don’t want to. I don’t feel comfortable. I get angry every time I visit. There are too many bad memories, bad emotions, and people I do not want to see. There are no opportunities. I hardly talk to anyone I graduated from high school with. I wouldn’t change anything that happened, not even where I grew up. But I don’t want to spend any more time there unless it is just to visit. I grew up in Los Molinos and Red Bluff; a huge contrast from Chico. So being gay, and in the closet for 20 years—I came out on my 20th birthday to family, and to my friends when I was 18—probably plays a role in the way my life has gone.”
If he could put himself in the place of house-havers, what would be his solution to the discord between people that live in town and the travelers? Dean said, “Maybe police should be educated better on this alternative lifestyle of vagrants and travelers passing through, because we usually seem to get lumped in with the homebums that are always around for years on end, that everyone recognizes. And maybe the police should start working positively with these passers-through and educate them on safe places in the town, places to sleep when its raining, places to sleep when it’s not, [and] places where they will not be harassed. Society rejects us because we are different. They make assumptions based on bad experiences. We are constantly getting weird looks, talked down [to], things thrown at us. All kinds of things. After a while, the disrespect [makes one] feel like the right thing to do is to dish it right back out.”
Please follow along as we present the second part of this feature and an interview with Lucas Dean’s mother in our June 10th issue.