There is no homeless shelter in Tempe. During the past two winters, most kids slept in Tempe Beach Park at the far north end of Mill Avenue. But last August, the Tempe City Council passed an urban-camping ordinance, so now they sleep anywhere they can--caves and Road Warrior-esque camps on the edge of Papago Park, inside the old Hayden Flour Mill, on the roofs of private homes in the neighborhoods near Mill, under bridges, in abandoned buildings called squats. Some crusties catch naps in the park during the day, then wander the streets at night.
Street kids in Tempe are almost all white, aged 14 to 26. A few grew up in the Valley, the rest are from points across America. Most drink and smoke pot, and roughly half are junkies who picked up the needle once they were on the streets, not before. They call modern society "Babylon." A lot of them carry knives or bludgeons, and a few are dangerously violent. The more innocuous majority are merely walking image problems for downtown Tempe.
Some are runaways. Some were disowned by their parents, some were abused, some were abandoned. For the most part, they did not have happy childhoods. But now they live on the streets by choice, not necessity, and defend their existence as the harbinger of a great darkness approaching.
This is the story of one week in their world.
Zach says one of the keys to surviving on the streets is always to return favors, so after he picks up a 12-pack at the Mobil station, he tracks down Pat, Marina and Nick to offer them a Heineken. "I know a cool place," he says. Five minutes away, Zach's cool place is a muddy field across from Tops Liquors, on the northwest corner of Farmer and University.
Most of the lot is exposed, but a semicircle of ground near the back is shielded from view on three sides by a small grove of trees, and the fourth by a stone wall that separates the field from the neighborhood of apartments and small houses behind it.
Zach yanks a piece of cardboard from a pile of rubbish and cops a squat. Nick and Marina do the same on a soiled blanket. Pat sits on a cracked, porcelain toilet. If he wonders what the hell it's doing there, he doesn't say.
Everyone cracks a beer. Marina gets out a small, decorative tin box and a marijuana pipe. Pat starts answering a question.
Why did he come to Tempe?
"Honestly? I came here for the high-intensity methamphetamine abuse, to meet some new friends, to have a good place to spare change, and to shoot heroin in the sunshine in the middle of January."
Seconds later, a bald, burly guy with a goatee suddenly vaults over the stone fence 50 feet away. He's got a black maglite in one hand and a silver, .50 caliber Desert Eagle hand cannon in the other. He looks pissed, and comes at the group with a purpose in his stride, snapping twigs underfoot.
"Hey, dude," Zach calls out hopefully. "Want a beer?"
In response, the guy loudly racks the slide on his gun, levels it, and starts to yell. "If you punks don't get the fuck out of here, now, I'm gonna bust a cap in your ass!"
After the requisite scattering in all directions, the members of the group reconvene on the sidewalk. They seem relatively unfazed by their eviction at gunpoint from a trashy piece of mud. Desert Eagles, urban-camping ordinances. Feeling unwelcome is a constant for them, and only a matter of degree.
"Well, I guess my cool place bombed," Zach says. "Anyone else know a cool place?"
"Oh, shit," Pat hisses. "I left my pack back there."
The bald guy's flashlight is still bobbing behind the trees.
Zach walks half the distance and shouts a plea. "Hey, man. . . . Hey, man--my friend left his backpack. Can he come get it?"
A few seconds go by before the guy's voice comes back.
"Well, I'll fuckin' shoot you if I see you here again!"
Pat's confused. "Does he mean he'll shoot me if I go back there right now, or he'll shoot me if I go back there another time from right now?"
"I think he means you can get your stuff, but next time he'll shoot you," Zach says.
"I think you're right." Pat cautiously approaches the trees. "I hope you're right," he says over his shoulder.
A minute later, Pat emerges from the trees with his pack on and trots back.
Meanwhile, Marina is frantically patting her pockets and softly whining in distress.