Meet the Crusties

Marina flips open a Styrofoam box and holds it up. Inside are three pieces of California Roll and a red slab of tuna. She curls her mouth into a slack smile. "Sushi's good when you're high."

Free sushi, even.
Half an hour ago, Marina says, some lady came out of Sushi on Mill and kicked down her leftovers. Now Marina, her boyfriend Pat and their friend Nick are sitting on the brick edge of a sidewalk planter across from Uno's Pizza on Mill Avenue, begging for change and macking sushi.

It's Saturday night, downtown Tempe. A couple days ago, Marina, Pat and Nick jumped off a freight train three blocks away. Last month they were in San Francisco. The month before that, Seattle.

Marina is 26 and looks younger, with sunken yet beautiful, dark eyes. Pat's 22 and looks older, gaunt-faced, with crazy brown hair and a scraggly beard. He's wearing a threadbare Sea Monkeys tee shirt and scrap-quilt leather pants sewed together with dental floss that match Marina's. Nick's tall, 25, and looks like a badass. The black hood of his sweat shirt covers most of his face.

Nick doesn't say much, just that he recently hit the road, and doesn't like hard drugs. Marina and Pat do. They spent the first half of today begging change until they had enough--$30--to buy a piece of Mexican black tar heroin, most of which they quickly cooked up behind Jack in the Box.

This lanky, dark-haired cat named Zach, who's been around Tempe for weeks, saw them getting ready to fix and walked over. "Got a point?" he asked. "You wouldn't believe what I just had to hit myself with, yo."

Zach opened a fist to reveal a broken syringe with a jagged tip. "I missed bad," Zach says, and pulls up his right sleeve to display a wicked red blotch, just above the crook of his elbow.

After Pat shot up, Marina squirted a syringe full of liquefied heroin up her nose. It's called waterlining. Then she passed the needle to Zach. "Thanks, yo," he said, tying off with his belt. "You guys just get to Mill?"

Marina nodded.
Zach positioned the needle over his arm.
"It's pretty cool here."

Crusties. Squatters. Gutter punks. Street kids. Travelers. The young and transient in America go by and get called many names, and pass through many places. There are dozens, or, in the case of cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, hundreds of them in every major U.S. urban center.

College towns, too. Crusties love college towns. Boulder, Colorado, is one of their favorites. So's Eugene, Oregon. And, as of late, Tempe, Arizona.

Street kids are mobile, feverish networkers, and the word is out that Tempe, and more specifically Mill Avenue, is a choice spot to spend the winter.

"It's the bomb," says Spam, 18, who spent six weeks on Mill Avenue last January/February and came back for seconds this year. "It's warm, it's safe--there's no sickos out cruising for runaways to rape and kill, like there are in L.A. and San Fran. There's a lot of restaurants, so you can get leftovers, and it's a party town, so there's lots of girlies, and whiskey is cheap."

Furthermore, Mill Avenue is known as one of the best streets in the country, if not the best, to spange--a slang combination of "spare" and "change."

"Spare some change today, ma'am?"
"How about you, sir, can you spare a little change?"
That's spanging, and Mill Avenue is a gold mine. All those shoppers and bar hoppers with fresh change in their pockets. Street kids can easily beg nine or 10 dollars an hour on a Saturday night, then go order a fast-food feast from a kid across the counter who makes half that.

Some of them also sell drugs, or connect customers--"custies"--with dope for a finder's fee. As a result, Mill Avenue is now a street where it's safe and easy to score anything you want, especially heroin, if you know the right crusty to make eye contact with.

Local officials, residents and business owners first noticed a spike in Tempe's seasonal transient population during the winter of 1995-96. This season, Mill rats started arriving in force in November. Last year, they remained a presence through March.

Street kids move around so much, it's hard to say with any accuracy how many are in Tempe at any one time. Between 50 and 100 is most people's guess, including the kids themselves. More than 60 were interviewed for this article in a 10-day period. Some have since left, some left and came back, some are still around.

They spend most of their days on Mill Avenue, or making bus trips to Phoenix to grab a shower and some free clothes and lunch at a downtown drop-in center for homeless youth. At night, they roam.