Squat Life in Phoenix


I kicked it with a band of ‘spice pirates’ outside of the public library

Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid recently banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is an epidemic here in Phoenix. The synthetic drug is sold as a potpourri and labelled as “not for human consumption,” until the five main chemicals used in spice were labelled Schedule I substances in July of  2012 “to avoid an imminent hazard to the public safety,” according to the DEA. Up until that point, spice manufacturers had simply altered the formula to bypass regulation and remain on the  shelves of head shops.

The drug is designed to mimic the effects of marijuana, but bears a hue of negative side effects, ranging from paranoia, vomiting to seizures and hallucinations. It is also highly addictive and users may suffer from withdrawals when not using the drug.

Despite the federal ban on the designer drug, spice has a large presence within Phoenix’s impoverished community. I went with Phoenix Uncut’s source on the street, who has requested anonymity,  to see the face of Phoenix’s synthetic drug epidemic.

Spice pirate
“Got any spice?” A ‘spice pirate’ approaches the Phoenix Uncut team.

I arrived at the Phoenix Public Library at around 8 pm on a Tuesday night. The park bordering the library was occupied by dozens of people, many of them homeless, within an hour of the library’s close. The majority of the interactions I witnessed were trades. Drugs, blankets, food and clothing were the items in highest demand. One man arranged the sale of a brand new iPad for the suspiciously low price of $100.  If one thing’s for certain, it’s that the sale of that iPad could get the young man an excess of spice.

“There is usually a guy here who sells it,” Phoenix Uncut’s anonymous source said, “He rolls spice blunts in the park and sells them for $2.” When asked where the supply comes from, our source initially told us that he “didn’t want to give anyone’s secrets away,” but later divulged that he believes most of it comes from California. “Some of these people have friends who work in smoke shops out of state and they smuggle it down here to Phoenix.”

Some transients in the Phoenix area refer to the homeless drug users as ‘spice pirates.’ In an earlier interview, 24-year-old squatter Gonzo told Phoenix Uncut that he believes ‘spice pirates’ simply smoke spice and neglect their need for food, water and shelter. Spice quickly becomes their new sustenance and reason for living.

“All of these people have stories,” our anonymous source said, “but you won’t hear them … they come together and do drugs to forget.”

Violent crime on campus

With the streets of Phoenix spilling into campus life, an interesting new dynamic has changed student university living.

There have been over 15,000 robberies, 16,000 assaults and 10,000 rapes reported on college campuses across the country from 2005 to 2007. With an average amounting to more than 9 sexual assaults a day, it is clear that college campuses need police presence, but how much involvement is necessary?

Over three years ago on the Virginia Tech campus, Cho Seung-Hui, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17. Eight years before the Virginia Tech massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed a total of 13 people on the Columbine high school campus. Last year, Newtown, Connecticut’s elementary school shooting sparked intense discussion over firearm banning and police presence on school campuses.

After the recent developments, it is no surprise that Arizona State University has a large police presence on school grounds. With over 70,000 undergraduate and graduate students attending the university, safety is a main priority.

When asked if he believes police should be apart of college life, police aid and officer for over 27 years, Jeff Sytar, had this to say:

“Yes I do. I think that they have to have some sort of structure and although probably not all the students appreciate the police, I believe the majority of them do.”

Samantha Gauvain recently dealt with an attempted theft of her bicycle. “I found ASU’s police force to be fairly helpful after the attempt to steal my bike. The officer suggested ways I might prevent a future theft; such as registering my bike with ASU’s online bike registration.” Gauvain said.

A campus officer is not only there to prevent violent crime. Campus officers also deal with minor reports, damaged property, patrol of the campus as well as helping cut down on bike theft in the area.

Phoenix squatter Gonzo talks urban survival and scavenging for food

Phoenix Uncut met up with travelers and squatters on the streets of downtown Phoenix. Hear what Gonzo had to say about finding a meal each day.

Although he admits that heckling passerby for food can be difficult, 24-year-old traveler and squatter “Gonzo” isn’t concerned about going hungry.

“People think homeless people are starving or something,” Gonzo said, “they’re not starving, they’re ‘spanging’ (asking for spare change) for beer. They can get your food out of a dumpster.”

Gonzo’s transient lifestyle isn’t for everyone. He mentions that a portion of the homeless population is “too lazy” to scavenge. But Gonzo survives on leftovers and thrown-out food. He leads the Phoenix Uncut team behind a Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches restaurant, where he rips open a plastic bag of day-old bread.

“If the U.K. and the U.S. just combined forces and took all their food that was still good that they were going to throw away, and gave it away to the homeless and the hungry people in the world, world hunger would be over with,” Gonzo said. He breaks off a piece of bread and tosses it into the parking lot.

Even as a vegetarian, Gonzo finds enough leftover food on the streets. Pizza and sandwich joints provide more than enough food when strangers won’t. If he finds leftover pizza, he’ll pick off the meat.

“I’ve got a friend who’s homeless and vegan, and I don’t know how he does it. He just eats hot Takis and Oreos all day,” Gonzo said.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 36 million tons of food goes to waste each year. Volunteer groups like Waste Not, Want Not and WRAP aim to combat wastefulness by redirecting food to those in need.

Students coexist with homeless in downtown Phoenix

For students living on Arizona State University’s urban campus in downtown Phoenix, encountering the homeless is a daily reality.

Aubrey Badger, an ASU sophomore public relations major, has encountered her fair share of colorful characters living on campus.

“During our orientation they gave us a little lecture about how to deal with panhandlers, and I anticipated them to be a bigger problem than they ended up being,” Badger said, “but they mostly keep to themselves.”

According to 2012’s “Homeless in Arizona” report, Phoenix experienced a 11.2 percent year over year increase in the  homeless population.

As a result, student interactions with the growing homeless population are not uncommon. Badger, originally from San Diego, says most students are able to adapt to the urban lifestyle, even after moving from smaller towns. But as Phoenix changes, so does the homeless population.

Jimmy and Gonzo lead Phoenix Uncut on a tour of several squatting locations not far from ASU's downtown campus
Jimmy and Gonzo lead Phoenix Uncut on a tour of several squatting locations not far from ASU’s downtown campus

“They’re braver here than they are other places … I’ve definitely been approached by a few homeless people and been asked for money,” Badger said.

Kathlyn Nguyen, a rising ASU junior broadcast journalism major, was born and raised in Phoenix before she moved into ASU’s downtown dorm. The student said she’s had mixed experiences with the homeless population.

“I feel for them because they’ve obviously been through some things in their life. But there are some times when it’s really aggressive,” Nguyen said, “and being a young female student living downtown without a car, it gets hard when you are harassed almost on a regular basis.”

And while encounters with the homeless can be uncomfortable, ASU police and students are doing their best to provide long-lasting solutions and maintain civility alongside the city’s less fortunate.

“I’ve had pleasant experiences with the homeless population … some of these people have the best stories that you will ever hear. Some of these people have been at the top of the world and now, as society sees it, they are at the bottom … there are stories to tell and there are lessons to be learned,” Nguyen said.