By Trey Bundy
Rex reaches over a chain-link fence and sticks a gyro sandwich, a two-liter bottle of Coke, and his skateboard between the branches of a tree. After a quick glance over each shoulder he hops the fence, collects his things, and strides toward some abandoned buildings, where he hoists himself atop a second fence, climbs onto a rooftop, and walks ten feet. He steps off the roof onto the branches of another tree and swings down into a courtyard between the buildings. Used hypodermic needles litter the ground, and Rex picks one up. He throws it at a giant wooden board that covers some windows, where it sticks like a dart.
Rex, 22, studies journalism and political science at San Francisco State University and currently has a 3.64 G.P.A. He’s also a homeless drug addict. His friend Steve, also a strung-out student, discovered the courtyard not far from campus in August 2007. He set up camp, and Rex joined him two months later. Because the buildings’ windows are boarded with plywood, the two sleep outside. They keep lockers in the school gym, where they shower, and study in the library or the journalism lab, where they have access to computers. The camp is where they eat, sleep, and shoot drugs.
“Being a bum, if you’re not thick-skinned, can be pretty devastating,” says Rex, tall and skinny with light eyes and stringy hair. “Some people are so distant from desperation. It’s ridiculous with all the suffering in the world.”
They sleep on old dirty mats and keep their belongings on a stretch of pavement along one of the buildings. A cardboard box divides their areas. Steve’s side is neat — his mat and blankets require little space. Rex’s is a monument to disorganization. Clothes, books, magazines, sleeping bags, needles, candles, bottles, trash, and random debris form a grimy heap 20 feet long. He points to a large black stain on the concrete and explains how the other night he knocked over a lit candle in his sleep and set a pile of clothes on fire.
Rex is the first one to tell people that he’s a freak, a bum, and an aspiring revolutionary. He won the David Jenkins Award for political activism from the political science department last year for his work doing homeless outreach. He says he wants to become an expert on homelessness, and that his lifestyle reflects his dedication to that goal. “Homelessness is one of my passions,” he says. “I’m passionately homeless. I’d love to see the skyline crumble. We should all be living in small communities, not this fucked-up dystopia that’s pressed on us.”
He takes his sandwich into the middle of the courtyard, which is full of overgrown trees and weeds. He settles his lanky frame into a rusted metal chair and takes a few bites of the sandwich before setting it aside to cook up a shot of heroin. While he shoots up, he reminisces about growing up close to nature in Santa Cruz. “It’s so sad how we as humans have devastated this planet,” he says, drawing blood to make sure he’s hit a vein. “We’re complicit as Americans in the wholesale destruction of the Earth.”
Blood leaks out of the hole in Rex’s arm, and he slurps it up with his mouth. He points the needle toward his tongue and taps the plunger in case there is anything left. He builds a new cigarette using tobacco from butts he found on the ground and a fresh rolling paper. Before he’s done, the heroin takes over and Rex is on the nod. His eyelids fall shut and his chin touches his chest. His grey plaid pants are inside out and his torso is bare beneath an open canvas jacket. His long, dirty-blond hair sticks out from under a battered sombrero from Chevy’s he found on the street.
“I like nodding,” he says, coming to, the dope heavy in his voice. “Steve likes the rush more.”
Today, with three weeks left before the end of the spring semester, Steve is off writing a paper for school. The 24-year-old is the antithesis of Rex in many ways; his dark hair is cropped short, and his jeans and black hooded sweatshirt look neat and clean. While Rex talks with his hands, jumping from one topic to the next, Steve is outwardly calm, his words and movements deliberate. They share a lifestyle, but have different perspectives on homelessness and activism. “I’m as into [political activism] as Rex, but neither of us is doing jack shit about it at the moment,” Steve says. “I’m not committed to being a homeless person.”
He put his name on a list for free housing from the city back in January, but hasn’t heard anything. In the meantime, he’s working on his journalism degree “for the fuck of it.”
Most of the duo’s finals are journalism projects, and Rex and Steve are falling behind. They’ve both withdrawn from classes this term — they’re each down to three — and next year’s financial aid likely depends on whether they pass everything that’s left. Passing depends on whether they can manage their dope habits and stay out of jail.
When Rex comes out of his nod, he and Steve sit in chairs in the courtyard, legs crossed like experts on a panel show, talking about socioeconomics and the justice system. “The public believes that dangerous criminals need to be locked up, but that’s not the way it works,” Steve says. “It’s all drug addicts and minorities. Other groups don’t go to jail.”
Eventually the discussion turns to school and their final projects. Rex gets up and pulls a video camera out of his backpack. He stares into the flip-out screen, looking at footage he and Steve shot for one of their classes — The Bum Life Project. It’s a documentary about their lives this semester and a how-to video for would-be bums. In the video they demonstrate useful tips for the homeless, such as cutting up cardboard boxes to make insoles for shoes, or how to charge a cell phone by siphoning power from a Muni train. One chapter has Rex building a meal from the contents of a public garbage can. “This is simply me reaching into the trash and eating food,” he says in a professorial tone. “If you’re afraid of germs, homelessness isn’t for you. But to starve as a homeless person in San Francisco, one has to be fucking stupid.”
The Bum Life Project is coming along, but there is still a lot of editing to do. The two also have yet to start on the final assignment for their magazine class, a start-up plan for a publication about homelessness. While they’ve managed to turn their lives into their curriculum, staying motivated is tough. “A college degree doesn’t get you very far,” Steve says. “I just want to get done with it.”
Dusk arrives and the air in the courtyard gets cold. Music booms from car stereos on a nearby street — regular college kids having regular fun. Rex whips out a pocketknife and scrapes the last of the peanut butter from a jar that, a moment ago, lay in the weeds like discarded trash. He spreads it on an apple he’s picked up off the ground and takes a bite. They’ve bummed a few bucks today and Steve is hungry, too, so Rex takes off to get some food from a shop at school.
As darkness sets, Rex skateboards through the cool air on campus, scanning the ground and stopping frequently to pick up things others have left behind — pens, change, cigarette butts. He reaches into a garbage can and pulls out a paper cup, which he takes to an open-air cafe and fills with self-serve coffee without shelling out a nickel. Rex enjoys caffeine. “We like to stay up late when we’re loaded,” he says. “Sometimes I carry a can of whipped cream in my bag for mochas. They’re hard to stuff in your coat, so I’ll spend money on that.”
Students at San Francisco State know who Rex is. He routinely shows up halfway through classes, shirtless except for a vest. Since he shoots up in the same spot over and over, his arms aren’t all tracked up. Instructors will pause and raise an eyebrow before resuming their lectures. Students try not to stare as Rex leans his head back and nods out.
Chris Middleton, a senior studying journalism, has had classes with Rex. “There were a couple of times when the smell was kind of distracting,” he says. “Maybe he doesn’t get to shower as much as other people. But it wasn’t so much that he didn’t have the right to be here. The fact that he’s in class, that seems like the safest place that he could be.”
Lori Hostetter, also a senior, knows Rex from the magazine class. “I thought no matter how hard he tried, he was going to get a good grade,” she says. “He’s kind of a charity case, and he plays that up.”
The campus police know Rex, too. He says a month ago he was in the library making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, reading socialist literature, and nodding out. Some campus officers noticed an open pocketknife on his table and almost arrested him for carrying a blade longer than two inches, something Rex does not dispute. He says he was using it to spread peanut butter.
Though campus police have averaged about 100 arrests and disciplinary referrals for drug violations in recent years, Rex hasn’t been one of them. Most drug charges have to do with alcohol and marijuana. A university survey from May states that less than one percent of students admit to using opiates. “Whatever [trend] is happening in San Francisco is happening here,” says Michael Ritter, coordinator of CEASE, the university’s drug and alcohol prevention program. “We’re like a microcosm of the city. If you go to Stanford, you’re not going to have homeless and drug-addicted students. We really are the city’s university. But it’s tough to stay in school when you’re addicted to drugs.”
“Rex pushes the envelope,” acknowledges Don Menn, a journalism teacher at S.F. State. “But lot of people who were laughing at Rex actually made me madder than Rex did. This school, this city supports diversity. Almost as disturbing to me are those who fall in line with societal norms.” Menn, who has taught both Rex and Steve, didn’t realize at first that the two were friends: “They’re such different personalities. I grew to respect them in different ways long before I realized they had other issues.” He says Steve often showed up early to class and had strong insights into the readings. “I’ve enjoyed my relationship with them both. But I worry about them.”
In the middle of the spring semester, Rex had been smoking crack in the Tenderloin for several nights and did a big shot of dope to come down. He blacked out and came to in the morning, standing off the curb in a Market Street intersection. All of his belongings were gone, including the laptop his family had given him. “I felt like a fucking scumbag piece of shit,” he says. “That’s the closest I ever came to killing myself.”
The next day Rex sat in Menn’s class with his eyes closed, head thrown back, grimacing in agony. The teacher approached him and asked quietly, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Rex said.
“Are you sure?” Menn asked.
“Yes,” Rex said, and then added, eyes still closed, “Thank you.”
Rex and Steve, who agreed to cooperate for this story on the condition that their last names not be used, met a few years ago in Santa Cruz while working as paid signature-gatherers for ballot initiatives. “We met through petitioning,” Rex says, “and then our love for partying.” They started pairing up on the job and hanging out after work: “Steve was strung out when we met, but he didn’t tell me. I didn’t know.” Rex hadn’t been shooting drugs much for a couple of years and didn’t notice the signs. “One day Steve said, ‘I’m a junkie,’ and I said, ‘Let’s go get loaded.'”
Rex gets why people might think they’re an odd couple. “It’s weird that we’re homies like we are, but Steve is into writing and activism, too. I just don’t think he’s found his cause yet.”
Around the time Rex moved to San Francisco, Steve went to jail for a crime he won’t talk about except to say that it wasn’t a violent offense. “I’m a criminal, a felon,” he says, “and that’s all I’m going to say about that.” When he was released, he sought drug treatment in San Francisco. After six months in rehab, he enrolled at San Francisco State and moved into Rex’s studio apartment in the Sunset. Then Rex became strung out again in August 2007. They moved out and decided not to bother with rent payments anymore. Steve started using again this past January.
They still earn money collecting signatures, but petition season just ended so they’re panhandling and recycling more. Both have overdrawn checking accounts and low-limit student credit cards, whose wells are pretty much dry. Steve wasn’t eligible for financial aid this semester, and Rex blew his student loans well before midterms. Steve knows an elderly cancer patient in the Tenderloin who’s willing to sell his medication for cheap, which helps when they’re hard up for dope. Sometimes Rex indulges patrons, older gay men who offer money and gifts in exchange for company. “I make it totally clear that if I spend the night, I’m not doing anything sexual,” he says. “I don’t want to deceive anyone.”
From the age of 6, Rex says he lived with his mother in a nudist colony in Santa Cruz. He never met his father, and his grandfather drank himself to death. In high school, Rex was all over the place. Often estranged from his mother, whom he describes as an alcoholic, he supported himself washing dishes and working construction. Besides drugs, the most consistent things in his life were books. “Reading helped me get through hard times when I was young,” he says, “and provided answers to my questions.” His intelligence endeared him to his teachers, and he boasts that it even garnered him some scholarships. He attended alternative schools, schools for troubled students, an exchange-student program in China, and, at the time of his graduation, a rehab center in Samoa where he completed a correspondence course while being treated for addiction to crack and heroin.
Steve grew up in suburban Virginia, one of five children. He started drinking in high school and his parents had him transferred from public school to military school and finally to a residential treatment center in Utah. After graduation he moved west, as far as possible from what he describes as an abusive and dysfunctional family. He spent some time in a halfway house in southern California, and attended community college. His grades were good enough to get him into UC Santa Cruz, but he dropped out after six months. It would be a year of addiction, crime, and incarceration before he was a student again.
“I’m usually a pretty depressive person,” he says, lighting a cigarette and fixing a hard stare on the ground. “I’ve suffered from psychological problems for a long time. My whole family is fucking crazy. That’s why we’re out here, really. No one in their right mind would be out here doing what we’re doing.”
Besides Rex, Steve doesn’t know any other homeless people on campus. “It’s not like we have meetings,” he says. “I’m not really into talking about being a homeless student. Rex goes around shooting his mouth off sometimes. It pisses me off. I think he’s into what he says he’s into, but I also think he likes to shock people.â€
Rex sees how casting himself as a junkie preacher might come with some irony and credibility problems. “They’re conflicting urges,” he says about drugs and activism. “But I want to get a message out. I don’t think we should be forced to work jobs we don’t like and pay huge amounts of rent. I want to have fun in this life and help others do the same. I believe in life before death.”
Rex knows his lifestyle could jeopardize his freedom. Late last November, he went to UC Berkeley to aid the tree sitters in their protest, bringing supplies and spreading their message to passersby. When the police approached a friend, Rex stepped in and things got physical. Rex was charged with battering an officer, although he insists the cops are lying and that he was the victim: “He [the officer] didn’t have to attack me. He took advantage of the opportunity: no witnesses, no cameras.”
“I think Rex knows he’s broken people’s hearts,” says Erna Smith, a professor and associate chair of the journalism department. “When I first saw him, he looked like a suicide to me.” Smith is supervising the work on The Bum Life Project. At first Rex wanted to create a multimedia manifesto on homelessness, but, she told him, “That’s been done before, and it’s been done better than you can do it. You have to do it about your experience.”
Smith says Rex never abuses trust. He never asks for anything, and she doesn’t give advice. “He’s a very passionate student who wants to apply everything he learns to a real-life situation,” she says. “He does expect people to look past all this stuff and see the goodness in his revolutionary heart. I wonder if he wants the world to be a better place, or is he using that as a way not to look at himself? If he makes it, I’ll be over the moon. And I won’t be surprised if he’s dead in a year.”
Two weeks before the end of school, Steve and Rex join a demonstration on campus to protest the school’s budget cuts and fee increases. They run into Lori Hostetter, who is used to seeing Rex bleary-eyed and slurring his speech, but today is different. “He was just pumped up to be there contributing to a good cause,” she says. “He said he wants to start a revolution. He’s actually a smart person, and I hope he gets some help so he can make his dream happen. I’d hate to see addiction come between that.”
Rex says he quit heroin yesterday after doing a wake-up shot at 5 a.m., and his dilated pupils seem to corroborate his story. He plans to live in the woods over the summer, where a dope habit would be unmanageable, so he’s trying to give the needle a rest.
The demonstrators head off to another part of town and Rex joins them, a little disappointed that Steve is hanging back to study. “I’m proud of him, though,” he says. “I’ve seen that guy down and out, covered in staph sores, in the street — raging heroin addiction.”
The next day, a harsh noon sun blankets the unkempt garden in the courtyard the two have called home for eight months of the fall and spring semesters. Yellow and purple flowers are blooming, even brighter than the red and blue junk-food wrappers on the ground. Hummingbirds and mosquitoes cut through the air as Steve walks through a minefield of empty soup cans and cigarette butts and drops into a chair in the sun. His black leather shoes are untied and he hasn’t, as yet, changed out of his Hostess Twinkie pajama bottoms. He has not decided to quit heroin today, and his pupils are pinned.
“Life is a battle to stay clean for a junkie,” he says, “and that battle is usually lost. You can always quit, and you can always start again.”
Steve’s cell phone beeps. It’s Rex. Apparently they missed an appointment yesterday with a student who is helping them edit The Bum Life Project. They sort out the due dates for their assignments before Steve hangs up, shaking his head.
Over the next week, the two struggle to get their schoolwork done. Rex says he’s hit a wall of depression, barraged with negative thoughts and feelings about the world and his life. When those emotions start to impinge, he turns quickly to what he knows.
Days before their final projects are due, he’s lying face up on his mat at 1:30 in the afternoon — back on dope. Earlier, he and Steve went to the Tenderloin to visit the cancer patient and bought some Dilaudid, pharmaceutical opiate tablets that, when crushed, can be injected like heroin. He was disappointed by the pills and hopes that today Steve can find something stronger.
Rex is polishing off a bag of cookies when Steve calls with an update: Same dope as yesterday. Rex is disappointed but urges Steve to get back to camp soon. With his drugs on the way, he talks more about quitting. “I have so much school work to do I’m just not going to do [heroin] until the end of the semester, or maybe anymore.”
But that plan doesn’t take. Rex and Steve spend the next few days scrambling to complete their final projects (and stay high), focusing heavily on their magazine start-up. Steve puts together the business plan, which includes several pages of expense and revenue projections, Web and circulation strategies, and demographic information. Rex writes articles about campus protests, police harassment, and how to mentally and physically prepare for revolution.
They both arrive late on the day they’re scheduled to present their group assignment to the magazine class. Their group is the only one with less than five students — it’s just the two of them. The other students recognize Rex, but they’re essentially meeting Steve for the first time. The moment is quiet, awkward, and kind of sweet. Rex looks sheepishly at his classmates and chuckles under his breath. Steve’s mouth creases into a bashful smile. Audiences love underdogs and, without saying a word, Steve and Rex fit the bill. There’s the palpable anticipation that curiosities are about to be satisfied.
“Our magazine is called Wasted Ink,” Steve says. “It’s a magazine for homeless, impoverished people by homeless, impoverished people.” He explains how the magazine’s revenue stream would consist of ad sales to local shelters and soup kitchens like St. Anthony. “I don’t think we’ll ever turn a profit,” he says.
Wasted Ink is not slick or glossy in any way, but Rex and Steve are the only group to go beyond creating a cover and business plan and produce actual editorial content. “Pretty ghetto is the best way to put it,” Rex says, describing the magazine. This gets a laugh from the class, which brings him out of his shell. “It’s about how to get by and enjoy your life without participating in the system.” The two explain that while it might exist under the radar, the target readership for their magazine is larger than most people think.
When they’re done, the class applauds loudly, and Rex and Steve return to their desks, smiling. Steve reaches into his backpack for some tobacco to roll a cigarette for after class. He accidentally pulls out a needle and drops it on the floor in front of the teacher and other students. Several people notice, but no one says anything.
The fog hangs thick over the courtyard during the last week of school, and Rex and Steve each have one more paper to write. They’re broke and spend the week finishing schoolwork, trying not to think about dope.
With the big projects behind them, they turn in their last assignments and wait for grades to be posted. Both manage to earn straight Bs for the semester and qualify for financial aid in the fall.
After spending the summer alone at the camp, Steve finally got a call from the city that he was eligible for subsidized housing. He moved into a room in a Tenderloin hotel a few weeks ago. Money was scarce over the summer, and he spent a lot of his time just reading, mostly books on anthropology. He says that in a year he might pursue that as a master’s degree. Drugs are still a part of his life, but he goes to weekly counseling and is trying to curb his heroin use with prescribed medication. “I don’t really want to be doing what I’m doing, but I don’t think it works like that,” he says. “I’m trying to do it less each day. I’d like to stop. … I would.”
In the meantime, Steve’s anchor is school, which he views as preparation for a life that hasn’t yet come into focus: “I’m trying to figure out a way to get by in life. If I wasn’t in school, I’d probably kill myself, because shooting heroin is fucking depressing.”
Over the summer, Rex went to court for his charge of battering an officer and ended up cutting a deal with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. He pleaded no contest to an infraction of disturbing the peace. If he is arrested for anything during the next year, he faces a $250 fine (he passed on an earlier deal that would have put him in jail if he got busted again). He views the arrangement as little threat and plans to remain homeless this semester.
Sitting inside a Carl’s Jr. near Civic Center, finishing an order of chili fries while he waits for his dope connection to call, Rex struggles to reconcile his passion for activism with his need to get high. “I know that in order to accomplish anything and make a difference I’m going to have to stop being a drug fiend, and that’s a process,” he says. “I want to try to quit. My plan is to cause minimal harm to my life while I’m deciding between getting loaded and abstinence.”
Rex is still waiting for his financial aid to come through, and says that last week an old friend ripped off all of his money. Regardless, he’s trying to be optimistic about a good semester. “Once I start stacking my chips and lining up my ducks, I won’t feel the need to get loaded,” he says. “Doing the tree sit and going to school remind me what I really want to do. I want to create a life where I don’t feel like doing drugs all the time.”
Rex and Steve still see one another almost every day. Steve is happy to finally have a room, but sometimes, waking up there, he misses things about his time as a homeless person. “I don’t hear the wind and the birds,” he says.
With his new place and student aid, Steve could be looking at a fresh start if he continues to fight his addiction. But if things fall through, he has a place to sleep, next to Rex, at his old address beneath the fog.