Joe McCabe sits on a wooden bench and calls out to two men strolling up State Street, “Have any spare change? I’m actually a traveler.”
The men continue walking, and McCabe grumbles a homophobic slur that they don’t hear.
McCabe gets up from the park bench and saunters down State Street in the opposite direction. At the corner, he stretches his right arm out to a woman wearing short shorts and high heels. She grimaces and looks at her friends questioningly as she maneuvers around McCabe’s hand.
McCabe continues walking as if unbothered by his encounters with these strangers.
To him, it’s another day on the streets. Some call him an “urban traveler,” “a crust punk” or worse. He and others like him — mostly young, homeless people who often travel in groups — roam beach cities begging for money, sleeping under the stars and trying to survive.
They’re vexing to tourist-dependent spots from San Francisco to San Diego, where officials complain their gritty edge and sometimes violent tendencies intimidate locals and turn visitors off.
“They can be very aggressive and very disruptive,” said San Diego City Councilman Ed Harris, who represents Ocean Beach, where homeless youth congregate on the sea wall, sleep on the beach and light illegal campfires.
Cities have tried numerous strategies to control their unruly behavior, from bombarding them with citations to hiring private security guards and installing cameras on street corners. Cash-strapped communities say they don’t have the money to hire more police officers, and some doubt law enforcement is the solution anyway.
In Santa Barbara, leaders are particularly concerned about “aggressive panhandlers” who demand money or food from pedestrians and outdoor cafe patrons — and curse and intimidate those who don’t oblige. The City Council on Tuesday voted to hire community service officers to patrol State Street, its main tourist thoroughfare, on foot and intervene when they see aggressive or nuisance behavior.
“Everyone plays better if someone is watching,” said Councilman Randy Rowse, who has owned a restaurant just off State Street for more than 30 years and proposed the idea of an increased safety presence. “Let cops be cops. We don’t have a law enforcement problem, we have a visible authoritative presence problem.”
Rowse and others say the nuisance behavior is mostly perpetrated by a small number of people. He said he began noticing the phenomenon a few years ago, after the Occupy movement swept in a wave of young transients who “know their rights” and can “recite the Constitution to you.”
“They aren’t breaking the law; for the most part they’re just hitting up people for money,” Rowse said. “The classic old broken-down homeless guy isn’t intimidating, but the young urban traveler, the free-range citizen, they’re physical, and they can intimidate people.”
Eric Rice, an assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work, said they’re simply homeless youth, who out of shame or fear call themselves “travelers.” The majority are peaceful and often victims of the violence and degradation that comes with living on the streets.
“Unfortunately, a small number of young people are making the rest of them look bad,” Rice said. “The average homeless youth has a lifestyle that is not going to be threatening to tourists. All you need is a couple of young people to act out in this way, and it creates a lot of drama.”
In his recent research of 1,000 homeless youth in Hollywood and Venice (of which 281 were traveling young people) Rice found that about half reported being kicked out of their homes.
“They aren’t traveling up and down the coast just because they’re choosing to engage in a homeless lifestyle,” Rice said. “It’s a coping strategy. They are coming from very bad family backgrounds. A lot of them are good kids deserving of our kindness. We should be figuring out how to help them, not how to put them in jail.”
Of those he studied from 2011 to 2013, about one-third started traveling between the ages of 13 and 17. Most slept outdoors instead of using shelter services. Most used alcohol and marijuana, and a minority used harder drugs.
They’re not drawn exclusively to the West Coast but to other cities perceived as “cool,” such as Minneapolis-St. Paul; Denver; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, according to Rice.
Alison Hurst, executive director of Safe Place for Youth, a nonprofit that provides social services to homeless youth in Venice, said they are initially attracted to beach cities because they’re perceived as “more free and laid back and not as urban and dangerous.”
“But they find out quickly that Venice is not Utopia,” she said. “Then we see a fast decline, and they’re engaged in gang crime and drugs and prostitution. You’d be shocked at how poorly raised some of these young people are.”
Many come out of the foster care system, she said.
That’s the case for McCabe, 32, who said he began traveling in 2005 after growing up in foster homes in Florida.
“I left,” he said. “I wasn’t happy. I was alone.”
He doesn’t know when he and his girlfriend, Tracie Barker, whom he met three years ago in Tucson, will stop. Their immediate goal was to get to the nearest train depot north of Santa Barbara, hop a train and head for either Yuma, Ariz., or Portland.
On a recent Saturday, he and Barker sat on a bench outside a 99 Cents Only store on State Street and talked while taking occasional swigs from a plastic water jug filled with vodka.
"$9.88 at Rite Aid,” McCabe said of the contents.
Their two duct-taped and sewn-up packs, containing everything they own, lay on the sidewalk.
They said they had just arrived that morning from Ventura, where the police gave them a hard time for “sleeping in the bushes, on the beach, under an awning, anywhere.” At Surfer’s Point, someone ransacked their packs, stealing their overalls, patches and sewing kit but inexplicably leaving behind their cellphone charger.
He said he gets surly at people while panhandling only “if they say something directly to me, like ‘get a job, you bum.’”
“Then I jump up and say something back,” he said.
Mark Ryavec, president of the Venice Stakeholders Assn., said he doesn’t have much tolerance for the travelers he sees buying and selling drugs and medical marijuana cards or sleeping, urinating and defecating on public and private property. Thefts, fights and stabbings are commonplace, he said.
“The reality in Venice Beach is there’s a tremendous amount of drug use and drug sales,” Ryavec said. “It’s created a nightmare.”
In San Diego, Ocean Beach business owners hired security guards to patrol Newport Avenue, and a security camera from a private donor was installed nearby.
“We don’t want it to be a crime to be homeless, but we should not be as tolerant in the beach communities as we have been,” said Councilman Harris, a professional lifeguard. “We’re making it too easy to be a homeless traveling person.”
Santa Cruz Deputy Police Chief Rick Martinez said a group of 15 young travelers from Seattle came to town this summer, and police bombarded them with so many citations, such as drinking in public, that they finally left.
“It took a few weeks to get them to continue on their travels,” Martinez said.
In Santa Barbara, officials say they’ve received enough complaints — and enough attention on travel blogs and social media sites — that they want to take action against aggressive panhandling before it spirals.
“There are times when people choose to engage in inappropriate behavior that can be intimidating to some,” said Mayor Helene Schneider. “That’s why we’re addressing this now. … We’re not waiting for someone to say, ‘I don’t want to come to State Street because it’s unwelcoming and they have problems there.’”
Some locals say the situation has already gotten out of hand and they avoid State Street altogether, turned off by dog-owning transients seemingly sprawled on every block, and drug use and rowdiness outside bars. They point to incidents like one last year when a transient from North Carolina was arrested after he waved a machete in the air on a weekday morning and demanded cash from a pedestrian.
The community service officers guides will not be armed but will carry cellphones to call police when necessary and will be able to issue citations for minor violations, such as skateboarding on the sidewalk. The $150,000 plan was inspired by similar programs in Santa Monica and Long Beach.
As for the longtime homeless of Santa Barbara, some are open to the idea.
Michael Joe Coleman, 58, crouching outside a Subway sandwich shop on State Street on a recent morning with a small cardboard sign reading, “Spare change. Hungry … please,” said he would welcome friendly intervention because aggressive panhandlers give others a bad reputation.
“To say, ‘Stop, you have money, give it to me!’ that’s messed up,” said Coleman, who says he has lived on the streets for 20 years. “Santa Barbara is not like any other place; it’s a mecca. You have to behave, and if people want to interact with you, then fine, but do it in a way that’s civilized.”
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