The wanderers of Mill Avenue

By ANA RAMIREZ

Since the U.S. economy has been spiraling, the government has tried to reduce homelessness.

Between 2009 and 2011, programs like The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program have reduced homelessness by 1 percent.

But, that still leaves more than 600,000 people in the United States without homes. More than 200,000 of those people live without shelter.

There is a misconception that all homeless people are alcoholics, drug addicts or just plain lazy. Many times, this is not the case.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an estimated 23 percent of the homeless are veterans.

It is also estimated there are 25,000 homeless youths in the United States. Many are either runaways or have been forced onto the street because their families lost their homes.

Often people assume that homelessness is caused by hardship, mental illness or drug addictions. This many times is the case, but less often than one might think. Many insist they enjoy being on the street, saying a routine way of life is not living.

Some people claim to choose a life of homelessness in order to travel and meet new people. Jeremy Schmidt, commonly known as Rounder, is one of those individuals.

Schmidt, 33, received his nickname from his friend Levi after years of showing up to rainbow gatherings with a new “hippie chick” attached to his arm every time.

“I have the things I need to survive,” Schmidt said, pointing to his backpack. “The things people own give them a false sense of security.”

Schmidt has been homeless on and off for 16 years and says he will never change. He used to have a home and a job but was fired because of a 13-year-old felony.

His choices and lifestyle have caused him to lose touch with his family, including a 9-year-old daughter.

Schmidt sits on Tempe’s Mill Avenue between My Big Fat Greek Restaurant and the Valley Arts Theatre day after day. He has a guitar and holds a sign asking for alcohol.

Throughout the day he moves from sun to shade to prevent his pit bull, Hazel, from overheating.

He is one of many who live on Mill Avenue, each having a different story.

Many Mill Avenue transients are part of a younger generation. According to the Arizona Department of Education, youth homelessness in the state has grown more than 80 percent in the past five years.

“Many of the teens say that homelessness was a choice for them, when in reality there was something behind it,” Jana Smith, program manager for Tumbleweed’s Tempe Youth Resource Center, said. “It was better than the alternative choice.”

Cory Maldonado, 22, of Salem, Ore., has been homeless for eight years. His mother died a few years before his father was sent to prison.

He says he chose his way of life. “It kept me away from foster care.”

Traveling kids tend to look at their situation as a way to experience life and to see different cities, Smith said. The appeal of the open road and a sense of adventure attracts them to this way of life.

“I hate being called homeless or a transient,” Maldonado said. “It’s demeaning and generalizes people.”

Looking at his girlfriend, he said, “We’re wanderers. The earth is our home.”

Maldonado and Jessica Powell, 18, have been dating for five months. They met five years ago in Washington.

They plan on leaving Tempe soon with just the clothes on their backs, their dog, guitar and a sewing kit.

“Stuff gets stolen. It’s just stuff,” he said. “I’d be more upset if my dog went missing.”

People, or wanderers, come from all over the country. Mill Avenue is a hot spot because of all the tourists, businesses and easy access to food.

“I can make $30 a night if I try,” Schmidt said.

“I hold a sign just to fit the stereotype,” he added. “They say we’re a bunch of drunks and drug addicts, why not play off of it?”

Maldonado agreed. “If you go hungry, you’re stupid.”

Another homeless man on Mill Avenue, Mike Nissen, prefers to be called Skum. He said there have been places where people just give him food.

“People in L.A. are a lot friendlier, all the yuppies live here,” he said. “Still, it’s easy to get food.”

Food sources include places like the Potter House, the Salvation Army and Tempe Beach Park. Tumbleweed’s Tempe location also serve a warm meal each day around noon.

“I don’t mind the center,” Maldonado said, making Powell laugh. “You can eat as much as you want as long as there’s enough for everyone. They even have pastries.”

The Tempe center provided more than 2,700 meals to homeless youths ages 12-25 in 2010, according to Tumbleweed’s 2010 annual report.

People who live or have businesses on Mill Avenue don’t always approve of the services that organizations such as Tumbleweed provide. They say such programs enable the homeless to continue their free-ride attitude and lifestyle.

Megan Schneckloth, a bartender from Blondies Sports Bar and Grill, said she’s heard complaints from customers.

“I even had this one guy pretend he was deaf just for a free beer,” she said.

Other businesses say they lock their bathrooms to ensure that the homeless won’t take sponge baths in the sink. Some owners have gone as far as having the city of Tempe remove benches from in front of their stores, hoping to attract fewer homeless.

The Metro light rail makes it easy for transients to travel from Phoenix to Tempe. Many don’t pay.

“We treat them like any other person. We kick them off and if they want to ride they have to buy a pass,” Gilberto Roble, a member of light rail security, said. “But I can say it definitely doesn’t appeal to other riders.”

Traveling folk don’t like staying in one place too long. They like that they can pick up and go whenever they get bored.

On May 3, Schmidt will be done with probation and plans to hitchhike back home to Kalispell, Mont., to visit family.

Afterward, he hopes to meet up with the Rainbow Family of Light, a group that holds rainbow gatherings every year during the first week of July. The event is held in a different national park every time.

This year, they plan to meet in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The group will set up camp and experience life in a sharing, loving and respectful manner.

 

Jeremy Schmidt, known as Rounder, is a familiar sight on Mill Avenue in Tempe. Photo by Ana Ramirez.

 

“You have to go, you just can’t explain it,” Schmidt said. “Traveling the country shows you that there are so many good people out there.”

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