WICKER PARK — As sure as the swallows return every spring to San Juan Capistrano, Chicago has its "travelers" — transient, footloose 20-somethings who, when the weather warms, arrive here from around the country.
In neighborhoods such as Wicker Park, these bands of scruffy, homeless youth get by through panhandling, though not everyone appreciates the presence of what some call "gutter punks."
"We travel for fun, to do something other than wake up in the exact same place every day to go to the exact same job and see the exact same people and do the exact same things at exactly the same time," a 25-year-old traveler named Devlyn said on a recent warm night in Wicker Park.
Sitting in front of Francesca's Forno, 1576 N. Milwaukee Ave., with three other freight-train-hitchhiking travelers, Devlyn, an Arizona native, estimated that at "peak season" he'll be part of a group of about 20 travelers in the neighborhood.
On Saturday around 3:30 a.m. — holding sticks with "Fishing 4 change" signs attached to a string and a cardboard box ship called "S.S. Gimme S---t" — the four said three hours of panhandling had netted them $34.
"Spinging" — the traveler word for panhandling — helps put money on prepaid cell phones, buy food and, for the girls, purchase personal items like tampons.
"A tight-knit group can spot each other a mile away. Backpack, big bag, dogs, general filthiness," said Devlyn.
Originally from Phoenix, Devlyn said he's visiting Chicago for the third consecutive summer and plans to stay in Wicker Park for a few weeks before heading to the East Coast. A traveler since he was 17, Devlyn said though he learned metal fabrication in his grandfather's machine shop in Phoenix, and has roofing and welding experience, he does not want to work a job.
Thousands of young people like him travel from city to city and meet up in major cities like Chicago, Miami, Portland and New Orleans. The community has its own website, www.latfo.com and a Facebook Page. They hitchhike and post pictures to Tumblr of themselves hopping freight trains.
Sarah, 21, Devlyn's girlfriend, is from Forest Park and last permanently lived in a group home in Chicago after her mother "had a breakdown from drugs," she said.
She recently reunited with her mom, who now lives in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. The mother allows her to come by and take showers. Said Sarah: "We've taken my mom out to eat if we have a good money day [panhandling.]"
Though Devlyn acknowledged that money was needed for basic necessities, he said that "If the Apocalypse happens, we're the f-----g survivors."
Another traveler, Jeremy Boling, 22, who goes by the name of "Scrap," said travelers sleep "anywhere nobody's gonna mess with us." He said he sometimes "squats" in abandoned buildings, breaking in through windows.
Boling and Joe Harrell, who goes by the name "Snype," are traveling together and met two weeks ago under an interstate bridge in West Memphis, Ark.
Harrell, a 23-year-old military veteran who said his parents died when he was a kid, decided to travel three weeks ago after his wife left him. He "got in a bit of trouble" which involved "burning a kid's car" who owed him money and "getting caught with a pistol in my hand," he said.
He said he's now on his way to North Dakota and hopes to get a job in the oil fields. Boling said his next stop is Colorado to "maybe ski bum and find a job."
The travelers are sometimes called "crusties" or "road kids." Just don't call them "oogles" — the name the travelers give to other roamers who they say give the entire group a bad name.
"They do meth. They rat out our sleeping places," Devlyn said.
Locals have mixed reactions to the travelers.
"They should go back to their homes. I feel sorry for them," said Syed Hameed, 33, a cashier at Wicker Park Food Mart at 1571 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Hameed said the youths come in to buy bags of chips and if they are 5 or 10 cents short he lets it slide.
"I can see the hunger. It's on their face," he said.
Meagan Dieschbourg, 28, a hostess at Francesca's Forna, described the travelers as "nice and not rowdy" and she doesn't "mind them being there as long as they don't sit in front of the open window where the customers are."
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) referred to the youths as "selectively homeless" and offered last summer to take them to a social service organization in Humboldt Park "to see the real problem of homelessness."
"They just shouted obscenities back at me," Moreno said.
Last summer, Omar Cadena, a manager at Irazu, a Costa Rican restaurant at 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave., said he had to ask one of the youths to leave his restaurant because she had a pet rat.
"I told her you can't be in here with that rat, we have health laws. She was sitting there kissing and petting the rat on the patio," Cadena said.
Nicole Torres, 35, a chef hanging out at The Flat Iron bar, 1565 N. Milwaukee, said that "some of the kids are good, some are bad."
But, she added, "It bothers me when they have track marks in their arms and $3,000 worth of tattoos and they're asking for money and I'm raising two kids."
On Saturday, $20 of the $34 made by Devlyn and his group came from one person.
Jose Garcia, 24, a civil engineer, was walking back home from Nick's Beer Garden around 3:15 a.m., when he stopped to talk with the group and give them a $20 bill.
"My biggest weakness and strength, as told by my peers, is my empathy," Garcia explained. "I hope they buy something tangible, some food."
In 2011, photographer Stephanie Bassos gave a group of travelers $9, two cans of Coors and cat food in exchange for allowing her to take their pictures in Wicker Park.
Bassos said the travelers live in "voluntary poverty."
"I talked to them, tried to get in their head ... see their point of view. But basically, it all just comes down to the fact that they like to travel, and don't want to work for 'the man,' but have no problem begging for money on the streets," Bassos wrote.
She added: "They seem to keep out of people's way. They can do their thing. I'll do mine."