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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."