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Wicker Park 'Gutter Punk' Population Surges Ahead of Grateful Dead Shows

By Alisa Hauser | July 3, 2015 6:05am

WICKER PARK — The homeless population in Wicker Park has surged, partly because of this weekend's Grateful Dead farewell shows, said several of the scruffy newcomers who hop freight trains or hitchhike and call themselves "travelers."

"I was hoping when I got here today I'd run into family," said Kitty G., a 31-year-old woman who plans to stay in Chicago for the weekend — albeit on the streets rather than at a hotel, where an influx of Deadheads have sent rates skyrocketing, reports said.

Kitty G. and her puppy, Spit, arrived in Chicago on Wednesday. They were headed to Wicker Park's namesake park, 1425 N. Damen Ave., to look for other "travelers," whom she refers to as family.

Like many transients who arrive to Wicker Park from all over the country every summer, Kitty G., of Russian Jewish descent, also has an actual family, though she says she doesn't speak with them.

Kitty G. said she has been listening to the band for most of her life but does not have tickets to any of the Dead's concerts. She plans to hang out near Soldier Field.

Kitty G., 31, is in Chicago because of the Grateful Dead's farewell shows. [All photos by DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

On Thursday, a crowd of about 10 new transients were in the park, having arrived from Alabama, New Orleans and Kentucky.

Most, including a man with a Grateful Dead patch on his overalls, refused to talk with media, citing previous reports on "gutter punks."

Alisa Hauser says many travelers came specifically for the shows:

Not everyone appreciates the presence of the "travelers" or "gutter punks." Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) has derisively called them "selectively homeless" and cited problems with fighting, drinking and drug use. Others say they can be aggressive panhandlers.

Gregory James Spence, a Jefferson Park native who was traveling in Kentucky before coming back to Chicago for his mother's funeral in mid-June, said he is sticking around for the concerts, too.

Spence, 38, who walks with a cane and said he has trouble remembering things after being hit by a vehicle that ran a red light, made it clear that he and others do not like being described as "gutter punks."

Quoting a Bible verse about God giving the world his begotten son, Spence elaborated, "I'm a monk. I got to go places."

Gregory James Spence

But several local residents said they have been negatively impacted by some of the travelers.

Around noon Wednesday, two men were passed out on the ground — one in front of the exit to Stan's Donuts, 1560 N. Damen Ave., and another by a shuttered storefront at 1576 N. Damen Ave. A police officer attempted to wake both.

A police officer speaks with two men accused of disrupting passers-by in Wicker Park.

"You got to get up. You can't sleep here," the officer told one of the sleeping men, who awoke and then attempted to help her wake the other man, but medical attention and an ambulance was required.

A business owner, who watched the events transpire and asked not to be named, was livid over the incident.

"Our taxpayer dollars are being used on this," the small business owner said, shaking his head, as another officer, wearing medical gloves, removed a large empty bottle of wine from the doorway.

Kitty G., who also witnessed the incident, said, "He's passed out drunk. They give us [travelers] a bad name."


Police and #wickerpark gutterpunks having a chat

A photo posted by alisa (@alyinwicker) on

Doug Wood, president of the Wicker Park Garden Club and a key player in maintaining the park's gardens, has witnessed the transients, whom he calls "riders," drinking alcohol openly in the park, a violation of Chicago Park District rules.

In a detailed email to Moreno on Monday, Wood described last weekend, when the riders were openly drinking in the park. Wood said he and other gardeners observed one of the men attack a park regular named Terry and then disappear, along with the victim, who lost his eyeglasses in the scuffle.

Then on Sunday, Wood said he was gardening again, and the travelers "had some new recruits just into town and were passing around pills.

"No one came. I called 911 twice on Sunday," Wood said, estimating that there are about 15 transients currently in Wicker Park and another 5 or 10 who do not travel but are part of the group's local "entourage," he said.

"The Park District staff, the Park District security, 14th District Police and alderman all need protocol.  What do you do when they drink, have a weapon or beat someone up?" Wood wondered.

Moreno did not return requests for comment on Thursday. Local police did not speak with the media but were observed interacting with the transients this week.

When asked about how residents perceive travelers, Kitty G. said, "It's not like I show up in town and everyone is super nice to me. There is a stigma [that] I'm dirty and disgusting. But I'm normal. I have parents. I went to college."

Kitty G. and her six-month-old dog, Spit.

A traveler who goes by the name "Old Man" recounts a 1995 Dead show.


A photo posted by alisa (@alyinwicker) on

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