In Part 2 of HomeFree we hear from Frankie Dean, Lucas Dean’s mother. She tells us what it’s like being a parent with a child gypsy and Amy Olson, new Synthesis Entertainment Editor, relates her experiences as a traveling kid.
Frankie, Lucas Dean’s mom, came into my office ready to talk. “He [Lucas] went to Boston on a vacation to meet some friends and just never came back, really. This is the life he chooses; it’s really dangerous, from a mom’s standpoint. I get really panicky when I don’t hear from him. My limit is three days when he’s on the road—I need to hear something from him about every three days. But this is a problem we have; he doesn’t think that he should have to [check-in].
“He does a lot of panhandling, and he doesn’t use the drop-in centers very often. But he’s unusual because he doesn’t do drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke any cigarettes. He’s had issues with traveling people that use heavy drugs.”
When asked if she knows his traveling companions she said, “He’s had some pretty rank companions, at least from where I stand. He thinks they’re fine. They all have demons, him included, that they’re chasing down and I think that’s why they do this. There are reasons.
“It’s really fascinating, but very dangerous from my standpoint as a parent. My biggest fear is getting a call to tell me that he’s in a morgue. Or not getting a call and wondering what happened. But of course, you know, he thinks he’s perfectly safe.”
I asked if having a traveling kid of her own has made her more compassionate toward traveling kids here in town and she said, “First of all, I think there’s a big difference between ‘homeless’ and ‘travelers’. I can see the difference because I’m a parent of a traveler, so I know [them] when I see them walking down the street. We’re a destination point in the ‘traveler book’. It’s easy to sleep on the streets, it’s easy to panhandle, it’s easy to get food. So I don’t have as much tolerance for those kids, because I know that most of them do have a place they can go. Some of them don’t—some of them are truly, actually running. But Lucas will tell you that he’s lied his brains out about his family to get some money up. So I have less tolerance for travelers than I do for homeless. I’m very active at Jesus Center and I have a lot of compassion for those folks.”
Frankie’s proposed solution? “The sit/lie thing seems like a good place to start. It would give the police some room…I think that would help. But as cold as it sounds, do not give them money. They’re not spending it on food, because they go in the trash can to get their food; they’re spending that on needles or whatever kind of drug or alcohol or cigarettes that they’re doing. That’s what most of them are spending that [money] on.”
I asked Frankie if she felt there might be an end in sight to Lucas’ travels someday and she mused, “He’s chasing a couple of demons down…Lucas doesn’t feel like he deserves to live a regular life.” I asked what she meant by demons and she explained, “It’s something that’s haunting you, something you can’t fix. And some of these other kids that he’s told me about…I can see their problems…if they would deal with and face their problems…” Can we coexist in some way with them? “No we can’t, I don’t think we can. It’s just two completely different schools of thought. It’s a rough life; as a mom I just don’t [understand]. It’s non-conformist behavior. But it is what it is; it’s my son, I love him. You say your son’s a ‘traveler’ and people look at you like, how can you let him do that, how can you live [with that]? But it’s his life—he’s over 18, it’s his choice, what can I do? Do I worry constantly? Absolutely. Do I think about him everyday? Absolutely. But can I do anything about it? No. But I can support him.”
Amy Olson grew up in Chico and decided to start traveling with her good friend at the end of her senior year in high school. “When I was about to turn 19, at the end of the summer, my best friend and I were in this weird space in our lives after high school, and we had a bug for adventure. We had met a lot of people who were traveling through town; it was a big thing at that point too, but mostly in those days it was like traveling on [Grateful] Dead Tours and stuff like that. It just sounded really fun and exciting, and we were kinda naive—we didn’t really see any downsides to it. The first time that I ever went traveling, we took off with this group of really intense people—a caravan thing that was a traveling kitchen. We would go from town to town, to restaurants and grocery stores to scavenge food by asking if they had anything they were about to throw out. We’d take the food and cook these big meals and feed other homeless people. It was all very idealistic.”
Amy continues, “It was an interesting perspective because through that experience we met an interesting cross-section of what the homeless community was about. There are definitely those who are mentally ill, alcoholics, Vietnam vets, people incapable of functioning at life. Then you’d meet people who were kind of just on an adventure, like we were. There were people who were anti-social and narcissistic and lazy and would rather just drink all day and hang out and do what they want, doing their thing. But there were so many more types of people than that, and multiple reasons why people go out [traveling]. You did see a lot of common threads: people who had abuse issues or who were in the foster system, or who just had a bad home life in different kinds of ways or had trauma. They’re basically people who don’t feel like they fit into society so they join this subculture—though it’s definitely a subculture that has multiple nuances. There are people who are really religious about it, like this is a complete belief system; they’re going to enforce their point of view, like they’re [militant] vegetarians. It was a really broad spectrum.
“I traveled seasonally for about five years. I would come back to Chico and work in the autumn, but as soon as the warm weather hit I would go out traveling again. I went out under a lot of different circumstances, with a lot of different groups of people. There are only a few towns that you go to; there’s like a circuit that you run. You go to Santa Cruz, you go to Berkeley, you go further south to Monterey, you go up to Arcata, you go to Eugene, or Portland—places that are cool.”
Amy related a time when she found herself alone in Arcata, after her group of travelers split up and went their separate ways. She went to an EarthFirst training camp to see if perhaps that was her calling. “I ended up completely alone. I had thought about maybe joining EarthFirst, and I went to their little training camp thing and it was awful and they were horrible people—it was not for me at all. The conditions were horrible and everyone had staph infections. And the community up there [in Arcata] was really at odds with the homeless population. There was this center square that had been completely taken over, kind of like how ours is now. And so I had kind of a breakdown; I ended up sleeping in this hollowed-out tree in this crazy storm that went on for days and days, and I was trapped in the woods and I hadn’t eaten and I was falling apart. I kinda had a weird epiphany during this whole thing where I felt this connection to life and to the workings of the universe and a certain peace with things being as they should be. I woke up and the storm broke, so I walked into town and there were these two people that I knew from Chico walking down the street. They had gone for a drive and decided to just go to Arcata, which is a long-ass drive,” Amy laughs. “‘Maybe we’re here to take you home,’ they said, and so they did.
“Obviously that wasn’t the end of my issues, but it was definitely a big turning point where I was like, ok I know there’s more for me to understand. I need to put some roots [down] for a little while and figure this out. But I’d get the itch and then go out traveling again. There’s definitely a peace to running away. There’s definitely a sense of exhilaration and wiping the slate clean, and nobody knows you and you can be who you want to be without the baggage of people having known you for a long time. But at the same time, people are super crazy out there! There are people who are on the road because they’re assholes and nobody likes them. They’re super harsh. And town by town, the people who are attracted to different places have a different little culture happening. You’ll watch it unfolding in front of you and see the dynamics.
“Santa Cruz was the last place I ever stayed for an extended period of time. There was a point at which I had so many burdens and so much chaos in my life that I was just thinking that I needed to develop some skills! I just needed to sit down and focus. I was walking a hard road for no reason. I can see how if you didn’t have a home to go to, if you didn’t have friends, you could totally lose it. I’m kind of astounded that people still live this lifestyle. There’s definitely a common thread of frustration and inability to integrate; social skills play a major role in what drives a person into that kind of lifestyle.”
Olson’s perspective on a prospective sit/lie ordinance in Chico? “What it comes down to are the finer points of the ordinance and how it’s enforced. Take Santa Cruz for example—they were really on their shit. They had a really strict 24/7 sit/lie law. Unlike San Francisco, which was like, ‘between the hours of blah, blah, blah, and then you can do whatever you want.’ In Santa Cruz you weren’t allowed to panhandle, but you were allowed to play music and do stuff like performance art. I used to sell jewelry that I made. And you were allowed to do that unless a business owner complained about you. But they didn’t give you tickets; instead, they told you to move along, and then you had to go elsewhere. You could move a block down if you wanted to, but if that business owner complained about you too, then they would move you along again. So basically, they always had a cop downtown [to enforce the law]. It created this environment where you didn’t go downtown to panhandle, you didn’t go downtown to lurk, you went downtown to either make some money by creating some art, or you went there to eat. And then you left and did your business or whatever.
“There were people that camped out on the beach, which was also illegal, and you were not allowed to sleep in your car, which I think is pretty important. You had to go out of town—you had to leave town if you were going to be a homeless person at night. You had to go and keep your shit private. There are facilities for people with mental health problems, and shelters for people that really need it, and that’s the way it should be. I believe in helping people who are actually in need. But people who are just being jerks, and really just doing it by choice, if you make things uncomfortable for them—they’ll move on. And if enough places make things uncomfortable for them, maybe they’ll start contributing something.
“If you have a choice, you should make a different choice. You can’t judge [the travelers] by the same criteria as somebody who is incapable of changing their situation. I was never a panhandler—I was a person who created things and sold them and cycled my money back into supplies. I know a lot of people who made so much more money than me [panhandling], they were so proud of themselves; they thought that everyone else were such suckers. They all had these ‘hilarious’ signs and ridiculous manipulations that would change all the time—it’s so narcissistic and arrogant. I never give people money unless they seem really desperate and are hurting.”
Going back to her point about Santa Cruz, and the police in their downtown area enforcing laws: “I think it’s discretion in law enforcement that makes all the difference. On Haight street, they’re repeatedly ticketing all these elderly homeless people who can’t go away. They’re never going to pay those tickets. It’s such a misdirection of the enforcement at that point, because those people are broken. The young ones in their early 20s who are choosing this—if you only focused on them, then you could actually make a difference. And if Chico had a reputation as a place like Santa Cruz—a clean place that’s based around tourism and commerce—if they want to be down here and want to help create an environment of entertainment and liveliness and festiveness, then that’s great. But if you’re going to come down here and be a drain or aggressive, then we’re just going to keep shuffling you down the street with this push broom until you’re so uncomfortable that you go to another town.”