By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Smokey's dressed in jeans and several layers of tee shirts. The top one is black and says "SMOKEY" across the front in large white letters. The "Y" is spattered with dried blood.
"That's what happens when you fuck with Dank Krew," he says. "I get your blood on my shirt."
A beige van cruises past, driving south on Mill. "Food van," Cisco says.
Every Monday night, the van trolls Mill like an ice cream truck, pulling off to a side street or parking lot every few minutes to dispense goodies. It's part of a street outreach program run by Tumbleweed, a Phoenix-based shelter for homeless youth. Cisco, Smokey and company follow it to a parking lot next to Jack in the Box.
A pair of Tumbleweed employees open the back doors and hand out blankets, socks, condoms, food and hygiene bags--small cloth sacks with a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, soap, deodorant and a comb inside.
Tumbleweed program manager Gail Loose says a group of ladies in Sun City buy the hygiene products and sew the bags themselves. Besides the outreach program, Tumbleweed also runs two shelters with a total of 27 beds, and a drop-in center. "There's a nap room there, and a clothing bank, and showers," Loose says. "We serve two meals a day, and do some group counseling, and a doctor comes in once a month."
The first time a kid calls Tumbleweed's drop-in center, a van will come pick him or her up, and give them bus tokens so they can come back for free. The center's address is 420 East Roosevelt, which amuses the kids on Mill to no end--there are supposedly 420 psychoactive compounds in marijuana. "Pulling a 420" means puffing a joint, and it's a stoner ritual to get hella baked every April 20.
Tumbleweed's outreach program and drop-in center are funded by a federal Housing and Urban Development grant. Services are available to anyone under 22. There's only one other shelter for homeless youths in the Valley--Home Base, which shares office space with Tumbleweed, and runs a 25-bed shelter for kids 18 and under.
Since last May, Loose says, Tumbleweed and Home Base have collectively served 628 homeless kids, and got 55 of them off the streets--24 returned home, the rest got a place of their own. Tumbleweed employs two full-time case managers to help kids who want to set goals, write away for their birth certificate to get ID, and find a job. Sometimes it takes a few weeks, but they can stay in the shelter in the meantime.
In other words, if any of the kids on Mill wish to change their lives, the support system to help them do it is firmly in place.
But, Loose admits, most of them don't want to change.
"Most of these kids are just passing through, and they just use us for the services, and we know that," she says. "But it's better than them being dirty and sick."
Loose describes the Tumbleweed staff as "a bunch of bleeding hearts."
"We see the conditions they're living in, and we want to give them everything we can, but we've found they just turn around and sell half of whatever we give them, so now our philosophy is to give them just enough to get through a couple days, so they'll have to come back to us, because the more times we get to interact with them before they leave town, the better chance we have of getting them to work with us.
"It's hard, because they all hate authority, and when we try to introduce them to the programs at Tumbleweed, there are rules and structure and curfews and authority figures--all the things they've grown accustomed to not dealing with."
Loose says almost all of the kids who use Tumbleweed and Home Base hang out on Mill Avenue, and agrees their numbers are increasing. "Traveling's the vogue thing to do right now."
The Tumbleweed van pulls out of Jack in the Box to make another lap around Mill.
Down the street a block, Cherokee and Sharon are still spanging. They stop when a Native American man who tells them he's a shaman gives them 13 dollars. Now they have enough to buy heroin. But instead of scoring, they walk up and down both sides of Mill, gathering every kid who's on the streets, then taking the whole raggedy band back to Jack in the Box for French fries.
"When a shaman gives you money," Cherokee says, "you should do the right thing with it."
The jagged-edged, hand-scribbled cardboard on the floor of Greg's kitchen warns, "If you don't pay rent, don't ask for food."
Greg and two other guys pay rent here--a railroad-car-size house three blocks west of Mill, on the sketchy side of University. If Greg were a punk rocker, crusties would call him a "house punk," which makes him cool if he lets street kids party and crash at his place, and a little bitch if he doesn't.
But he isn't punk rock. At least, he doesn't look it. Greg looks, for lack of a better word, normal: big guy, mid-20s, short hair, mustache. Jeans and a sweat shirt. Bouncer for an East Valley nightclub. Moved here from Detroit. Soft-spoken. Total misanthrope.