It's another postcard day at Venice Beach, the Washington Square Park of L.A. Aging kooks and crackpots in an eternal time warp freely express themselves like it's 1967. There's a guy in a leopard bikini with the rubber snakes, a dude in a white turban on skates with a guitar and other fixtures, plus a few new twists: medical marijuana dealers, rappers from South L.A. slinging mixtapes to defenseless tourists.
And there are the travelers, a gang of young hippie-chic, urban guerrillas in camo shorts and TJ hoodies with carefully considered, naturally occurring disheveled hairdos that kids in the Palisades drop hot dollars to chemically configure.
The California dream that called the travelers to the coast is a story older than Brian Wilson's psychiatric diagnosis. These daydreamers weren't moving toward something; they were escaping into a mirage, now eclipsed by the reality of young bones on cold concrete.
They are propelled by the omnipotence of youth, blind to the reality of what's in store if they make it through their 20s and begin sorting out the lingering effects of sidewalk sleeping. Safe in numbers, they move in clusters haunting the streets of Venice like a pack of dogs.
The sun sets as the tourists head home. The travelers head a few blocks east from the boardwalk toward a nonprofit called StandUp for Kids — Los Angeles, which hosts a biweekly drop-in center for homeless youth. Affectionately called the purple people because the staff wear purple shirts, the organization gives the travelers a brief respite from the streets, a pair of clean socks and a piece of pizza, and assists them in accessing services.
Each arrives with his or her own personal baggage.
Dylan has three names. Sometimes they call him Grim and sometimes Texas, presumably because of his drawl. The 20-year-old traveler looks like he could be 16, unless you look into his big, brown eyes. Then he could be 100.
“I just started hopping freights from state to state and eventually ended up down here,” he says. “Wherever I end up, I end up. My mom abandoned my two sisters and me when I was 5. So I raised them along with my own self.”
He graduated from grocery store shoplifting to slinging dope before he hit the road at 15 after spending a few years in juvenile jail in Michigan.
Dylan slept in the parking lot by the handball courts last night. When he first started sleeping on the ground, his body was sore and aching, “like I didn't even want to lay down anymore. So I started doing meth,” he says.
Just under the surface, there's anger brewing. “I start staying in one place, I start feeling like I'm a caged wolf.”
His friend Wolfie sleeps like a cat, his senses heightened by necessity. Anything can jump off without a moment's notice. He is soft-spoken, handsome with clear brown eyes and nice white teeth; his few days of beard growth could be a calculated look, but it's not for effect. It's hard to find a place to shower and shave.
Wolfie was a couch-surfing teen after his mom lost their house in Milpitas. “I don't know what problems she had in her mind,” he says. “Out here the difficulty is the cops. The cops are like Hitler. It's like a homeless genocide. Fuck everything that has to do with your needs and what happened to you.”
Sava D. is from Louisville, Ky. She's 20 and has been living on the street in Venice for three months. She was booted out of the house at 17 when her mom got divorced.
Purple stripes painted on her face make her look like she could be going to a Grateful Dead show. The detached rationalization of a trauma survivor fits neatly into her neo-'60s hippie sensibility. “People get all weird. 'Oh, you're sleeping outside,' they say. People pay to go camping. I sleep outside for free.”
But she admits that it's hard for girls on the street. “If you're unaccompanied and you're a female, they'll think of you as a piece of meat. And if they get you alone and you can't defend yourself … I've learned to walk like I have balls. I usually carry a knife or Mace. I'm a relatively strong girl, but there are dudes who are stronger than me and could totally break me in half. So it's better to be able to burn them in the eyes or something,” she says with a laugh.
Sava D. didn't get a road dog until a couple months ago. She was with a guy named Matt for a while, then she met Tim.
Tim was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor on Oct. 3. Doctors said he had 12 months to live. He declined radiation treatment and decided to make the best of his remaining time.
“Fuck it. I said, fuck it,” he says, looking boyishly blond cute in mirrored aviators. He's known on the street as Fuck It.
Taking his ideological and aesthetic cues from Jim Morrison and Bob Marley, Tim was 12 when he ran out the back door as adoption officials showed up to collect him following his mother's unexpected death from complications of diabetes. He never met his dad and he has no brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles.
Now 19, Tim spent the years selling psychedelics before he found his way to Venice Beach after doing time in New Orleans Parish Prison.
“I don't even think I felt it till I was 13,” he says of his mother's death. “It went by so fast. I was so emotionally unstable. All I concerned myself with was the next dollar.
“With what time I have left, I'm going to travel, meet some pretty amazing people and enjoy it. Take a walk in humility. Truth. I'm traveling. Hardly homeless.
“When she hugs me,” he says, looking to Sava D., “dude, I'm right at home. Home is where the heart is. Truth?”
Alison Hurst is waiting in her purple shirt as the kids converge at the drop-in center. She's executive director for StandUp for Kids — Los Angeles.
“I think it's really disgusting that the richest country in the world has homeless children dying on the streets,” Hurst says. “Thirteen kids die every day on the streets of America. It's kind of like a dirty, guilty little secret. It's so shameful that it exists that people don't really wanna face it.
“We're providing the basic necessities that we believe, no matter who you are and what you do, you deserve to have. A clean pair of socks or a food pack to get you through the day so you don't have to resort to some sort of survival crime. We help kids get into housing, school and access medical and other services to improve their lives.”