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Wicker Park 'Gutter Punks' Return for Another Season of Panhandling

By Alisa Hauser | May 8, 2015 9:44am

Stacie Holton with a can that she is about to turn into a flower. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

WICKER PARK —  The weather has finally turned for the better and with it comes the return of scruffy, homeless 20-somethings who visit Chicago during the warmer months to panhandle on the sidewalks.

Stacie Holton, who spent most of the afternoon on Thursday in front of the former Reckless Records store, says she's "more artistically than musically inclined," so instead of playing an instrument like many of the freight-train-hitchhiking travelers, she makes flowers out of discarded beer, soda and energy drink cans.

Not everyone appreciates the presence of the "travelers" or "gutter punks. " Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) has derisively called them "selectively homeless" and cited fighting, drinking and drug-taking. Others say they can be particularly intimidating in their panhandling.

Alisa Hauser says some return every summer to Chicago:

Their ranks dwindled last summer after more stringent police patrols but they are legally allowed to be on the street as long as they are not drinking in the public way.

Holton, 23, displayed her aluminum flowers in front of 1532 N. Milwaukee Ave. and askd for donations. "I'd much rather sell things than just ask for money," she said.

Each flower takes Holton about 15 minutes to make. She deftly cuts a can several times and then, folding the aluminum strips, uses the can's tab area as the flower base.

For lesser experienced artists like Holton's ex-boyfriend, who used to join her in making the flower cans for about a year before they broke up, it can take about 30 minutes to create a flower, she said.

Stacie Holton's flowers made out of cans.The number of petals varies depending on the size of the can.

Interest in the flower cans from the public seemed low on Thursday midday, but Holton said people are usually friendlier at night after they've been drinking.

Though dogs seem to elicit more sympathy, Holton prefers to travel without a pet.

"It's mostly so I can stay inside of a coffee shop when it's raining or cold rather than have to worry about a dog," Holton said.

Before Chicago, Holton, who has been traveling for 5 years, was in New Orleans, where she had a job working as a bartender.  And before that, she was in California, where she preferred to make palm roses out of palm fronds rather than beer can flowers.

The last time Holton was in Chicago for more than a few weeks was when she was 16 and a freshman at an art school studying cartooning and drawing, but she dropped out, she said.

"I was one of those freaks that skipped grades and graduated from high school early, headed to college at 16," Holton said.

When asked how her mother feels about knowing her daughter is constantly traveling, Holton claims that her mom, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is "all for it" but it took a few years.

"She had a mid-life crisis and accepts it now," Holton said.

Though last summer was a relatively quiet one for gutter punks, the previous summer included a violent attack 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.

Holton is traveling by herself but in her first few days in Wicker Park this week met a few other travelers such as John Kallet, 27, freshly arrived from Little Rock, Arkansas.

"You instantaneously recognize one another because of the big giant backpacks," Holton said.

(l.) Jesse La and dog, Gizmo and John Kallet [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

Paul H., 28, originally from a suburbs of Detroit, Mich. was panhandling in front of Debonair Social Club, 1575 N. Milwaukee Ave., on Thursday along with Jesse La and La's dog, Gizmo.

Describing himself as "an orphan really," Paul, who declined to share his last name, said he's been traveling on and off for 9 years and was most recently in Pennsylvania before coming to Chicago by himself.

"I would go home if could. I don't have any other choice; I am just trying to survive. If I had somewhere that I could go and stay and get a job I would. I have to keep moving," he said.

The travelers sleep in random spots, usually outside or in abandoned buildings. At the height of the season there are usually about 20 travelers in Wicker Park and several others around the city.

"I am not sure if I will stay here all summer or not. If I can make $150 [panhandling], it will pay for a Greyhound ticket to Utica, New York. Chicago is right in the middle, a lot of us come here because it's a central spot," Paul said.

He added, "None of us want to be out here right now, we have no other choice. We are seriously sick of it and just don't know how to get off the streets."

Late Thursday, Paul was camped out on the sidewalk in front of Lubinski Furniture, 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave.

His "wish list" asks for prepaid Verizon minutes, "organic food/any food" and "smokables/drinkables," among other things.

Paul H's sign [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

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