Lucas Swafford tries hard to dole out respect to the locals of Ocean Beach. He just wants to play his music, relax in the sun and get some of that same respect in return. Swafford, 25, is painfully aware of how he and some of his young transient friends are being perceived by the community.
Swafford is part of an ever-rotating enclave of young adults which has ebbed and flowed near the oceanfront over the last few months, calling themselves “urban travelers;” camping out on the grass area of Veteran’s Park, in the alcoves of businesses along Newport Avenue and up and down the sea wall.
Swafford acknowledges that some among the urban travelers “are idiots,” and have rightfully drawn the wrath of the community by becoming drunk and belligerent, engaging in the use and sales of illicit drugs in plain sight of visitors and families, and blocking sidewalks and the boardwalk to aggressively panhandle and intimidate tourists.
But “Spooks,” as he is known on the street, also has a message for local residents and merchants.
“A lot of us who respect the community are pissed off — and not at the locals, because we understand what they are saying,” Swafford said. “A lot of these kids out here are legit kids. They smoke their weed, like to play their guitar and hang out at the beach. But, like anything, it’s always just a handful out of the hundred to screw everything up for everybody else.
“What the community needs to know is that most of us are just here to enjoy our time,” he said. “Some of us are just passing through and 90 percent of us respect your community and know that we can become bothersome sometimes ... But if you’ve got somebody who’s drunk, throwing trash everywhere and messing up your community, I can understand why people (residents) would react the way they have.”
Survival on the street
Swafford said he earned a degree in English from Arizona State University four years ago. He is articulate and candid, to be sure. He said he left his wealthy family behind in Yuma, Ariz., four years ago to pursue a nomadic life by choice. Swafford arrived in Ocean Beach a year and a half ago in an RV with several friends who have since gone their separate ways.
Swafford has no ATM card to dip into funds as needed. Instead, he plays his guitar and accepts what is given to him.
The traveling musician suffered a personal blow when his guitar was stolen on Christmas. He felt the Ocean Beach generosity recently, however, when he was given a replacement.
“I had to do the whole, ‘Excuse me, bro, can you help me out toward a sandwich?’ thing, which I hate doing personally. I’d rather sit out here playing all day and make $5 than have to ask somebody for $1. Sometimes people come up and give you stuff and sometimes people ask for a little help on their yard. Really, anything you can do to survive.”
While some among the urban travelers do have ATM cards and cell phones paid for by families who want the youths “to go out and experience life,” panhandling is a frequent means of survival for many, Swafford said. But even the majority of urban travelers are appalled by the aggressiveness of some of the wayward youths, he said.
“Most of the time, everyone’s got their own little hustle going,” Swafford said. “Some people are good at asking for money and entertaining people. I’m a musician.”
Among the more common resident and merchant complaints about the travelers is widespread drug and alcohol abuse in plain sight of visitors and families.
Swafford does not deny such activities take place among the young nomads, but he said the vast majority of travelers attempt to discourage the behavior. He said drug solicitation is a part of society today and, while he admits to being a marijuana smoker, Swafford draws the line at the public drug flaunting and the more serious drug activity.
“If someone says, ‘Do you want to smoke a bowl?’ I’ll smoke a bowl. I don’t agree with doing it blatantly out in the open,” Swafford said. “I’ll be honest. I’m an advocate for marijuana. But I don’t think they should be smoking it on the wall out in front of little kids. I mean there’s a clinic right here, so marijuana is one thing.
“But the other day I got so pissed off and started yelling at everybody (in the group) because … I found a hypodermic needle on the beach. That kind of stuff needs to stop … You can tell a junkie from a person that just smokes weed. I can understand as a family person, if I had my own kids, that would really piss me off. … People just need to have a certain amount of common sense when there are mothers and fathers pushing their kids around.”
Alcohol use is highly prevalent among the traveling youth as well, Swafford admitted.
“There are a lot of alcoholic kids, a lot of swillies. That’s what we call them,” Swafford said. “But what we really don’t like is the meth and the hard drugs. I don’t think there’s much crack out here. We like to smoke weed, drink beer and have a good time.”
One thing about the majority of urban travelers is awareness of the surrounding community — as temporary as it may be, according to Swafford. He said the group often polices itself and tries to keep more radical behavior from spinning out of control.
“In fact, a lot of us kids here, we keep a lot of the junkies and a lot of the people like that out,” Swafford said. “We don’t like seeing all this heroin that’s been down here and we’ve had to run a few people out of town. I think we help the community in a way, but we can be a nuisance because there are just so many of us. It’s just such a beautiful place to be.
“Our philosophy is, if you start a fight at the fire pit, you are either leaving the fire pit or you are going to get drug out of the fire pit,” he said. “I mean, we don’t like violence. We don’t like none of that stuff. There’s just different types of travelers and homeless kids that have different mentalities.”
Because of the actions of a few, the police presence around Newport Avenue and the pier has been stepped up noticeably in recent weeks. While several of the urban travelers have been ticketed or arrested for various offenses, Swafford believes officers are unfairly targeting anyone and everyone fitting the general description.
He is among those youths who have been grilled and even handcuffed by police, only to be cut loose after no wrongdoing was found, he said.
“There’s ying and yang to everything. But I wish the police would be a little bit more understanding that not all of us — in fact most of us — are not idiots,” Swafford said.
Swafford said he gets up with the sun about 5:30 each morning. Though he may be a short-time resident of Ocean Beach, Swafford said he takes pride in his adopted neighborhood.
“I’ve got nothing else to do, so I go out to the beach and pick up trash because I do respect the people here and I do respect this community,” Swafford said. “So it sucks when you got people driving by and saying, ‘Go home, you f—-ing troll’ (a common term used by some locals for the homeless and streetbound in OB) and all this stuff.
“I mean, you don’t know me. And just because of some other idiots, we take the blame,” he said. “Most of us are cool kids and we don’t really commit crimes. It is a little annoying when people don’t like you that don’t even know you, because of something some other idiot did a week ago. It gets frustrating, but I can see both sides of the story.”
Swafford said that while he makes no excuses for illegal and belligerent behavior on the part of a minority of urban travelers, the street of respect must run both ways.
“Let’s be honest. Yes, for the most part, most people are stoned around here,” he said. “But some (in the community) look at you as less than human because you didn’t take a shower that morning. That’s stereotyping. And if people would actually take the time to come up and talk to us, and a lot of times they do, they’d find out that we’re really loving, caring people.”