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 videocamera 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."