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Wicker Park 'Gutter Punk' Ranks Dwindle After Police, Residents Push Back

By Alisa Hauser | July 15, 2014 8:28am | Updated on July 15, 2014 12:30pm
 Travelers, or "gutter punks," visit Wicker Park every summer, but this year their ranks are smaller than in previous seasons.
Wicker Park Travelers/Gutter Punks Summer 2014
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WICKER PARK — There are fewer homeless "rail riders" or "gutter punks" camping out in Wicker Park this summer, a situation both the traveling, transient 20-somethings and passers-by are attributing to stronger police patrols.

"The police are sick of us harassing their yuppies. We just move to another corner; if someone tells us to leave, we do," said Zachary F., or Zito, a 28-year-old gutter punk who was panhandling on North Avenue on Sunday morning and afternoon with his dog, Gangsterdoodle.

Zito, who arrived in Wicker Park in June, is one of seven gutter punks in Wicker Park, compared with at least 20 at this time last year.

Alisa Hauser talks about reaching out to the transients' families:

 Zachary F. or "Zito," age 28
Zachary F. or "Zito," age 28
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

While eating leftover pizza and fish handed to him by two passers-by, Zito said "this is the worst" summer in the dozen years he's been coming to Wicker Park.

Just one day after he arrived, Zito was arrested about 10:30 a.m. June 26 in front of the Flat Iron Arts Building at 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. in an incident witnessed by a reporter.

After six days in custody, he was released and ordered to serve 20 hours of community service and pay a $150 fine and court costs from a 2010 trespassing incident on railroad property in DuPage County.

While the June 26 brush with police resulted in an arrest, Lance Lloyd, a tattoo artist, said he had witnessed the police ask what Lloyd calls "crusty punks" to leave crowded corners at the Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues intersection.

"I don't know if there is less of them, but they are not hanging around the same spots for days anymore," Lloyd said.

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) attributed the decline to stronger police attention.

"We have worked closely with the police to let the selectively homeless know that we have genuine homeless problems in our city. We have shown that we do not tolerate them coming into the neighborhood, fighting, drinking and using drugs. They abuse our parks and our neighborhood," Moreno said Monday.

Though police declined to comment on whether patrols have been boosted, Steve Jensen, president of the Bucktown Community Organization, said, "We have been spreading the word online and in CAPS meetings that if you want them to go away, stop giving them money."

Jensen said that the reports he had been hearing over the last two months were that "there are no gutter punks" here. 

"Last summer and the summer before, I was going into that park every morning where they were sleeping all over the park in the flower beds. I haven't had to go over there at all [this summer]," Jensen said.

Jensen said he believed the reason the gutter punks originally came to Wicker Park was because "nobody was noticing them," but "last summer it became obvious" because of violence and fights.

Those issues included a violent attack in August by one "rail rider" who admitted to beating up a man in the park as well as another incident in which a man allegedly exposed himself.

"The word has gotten out to gutter punks that Wicker Park is not so cool for their kind anymore," Jensen said, adding, "This is a positive result of the hardworking efforts of neighbors and 14th District police."

Stories of last summer's violence have been spreading among the community of transients who travel from city to city by hopping freight cars.

Last month, Molly Heinen, 19, was panhandling in front of Starbucks. 

When asked why she believes there are fewer travelers than in previous years, Heinen said she had "seen articles on Facebook about cops pushing down on travelers."

"Everybody that's on Facebook that travels saw it, and word got out. But it hasn't been true. Cops here are nice," Heinen said.

While hanging out in the park Monday, Mark Richards, a local resident, compared "the big pow-wow every day" of 20 gutter punks in the park in previous years to the few this summer that he said are "just passing though."

"I ain't see them, and they don't bother me. I have talked to them about their odor, and earlier this spring I saw one of them [washing] ... in the fountain, but that hasn't happened since. I get along with them. They are people, and they bring their own character to here," Richards said.

Recently, Lloyd said he's given away cigarettes and two doughnuts to panhandlers.

"They will get more enjoyment out of [the doughnuts] than I will," he said.

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