WICKER PARK — The groups of scruffy homeless people who hop freight trains to get around the country and flock to Wicker Park's namesake park every summer have mostly left town as it gets colder, though one man says he plans to stay behind.
"I think I'm retiring from traveling. I don't want to do it anymore. I'm over it," said Gregory James Spence, a 38-year-old artist originally from Jefferson Park who says he's been hopping freight trains on and off for 11 years.
He said he will look for a job and possibly crash with friends, including one who lives on the South Side.
Ticking off the friends that have died from heroin overdoses — Dane, Timmy, a guy named Rodent, another traveler whose name escapes him — Spence said the lifestyle is getting riskier because of tainted drugs.
"I don't do heroin. I drink beer and sometimes smoke pot but the heroin dealers want to make more money. They're lacing it; that's why people are dying," Spence said.
Last month, Brice J. Allen, a 27-year-old traveler believed to be from Washington, died of an apparent heroin overdose in the same week Chicago Fire Department officials reported 72 overdoses within three days from a batch of heroin laced with the pain killer fentanyl.
"He said he had to go to the bathroom. We didn't see him for a while and his girl said he was in the porta-potty. I didn't know he was doing heroin," Spence said.
Shakespeare District police said Allen was still alive when he was pulled from the park at 1464 N. Wicker Park Ave. and later died around 9 p.m. Oct. 4 at a Presence St. Mary Hospital.
Brice Allen was last seen alive by his friends when he was pulled out of a portable washroom in Wicker Park. [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]
Spence said he and other friends could not get any details from the hospital about Allen's condition because they were not family.
Allen was initially listed as a homeless person of unknown address on the police report, but Becky Schlikerman, a spokeswoman for Cook County morgue, said next of kin was located.
Schlikerman was unable to provide further details on Allen's death but said it takes weeks for toxicology results to be available.
Known for his mutton chops, Spence said Allen "was really good at traveling and talking to people and not being offensive in any way."
Spence, who also panhandles, acknowledges that some of the travelers or "gutter punks" can get aggressive with requests for money.
In past summers, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) has derisively called them "selectively homeless" and cited problems with fighting, drinking and drug use.
Daniel Caldwell, 26, who goes by the name "Piss" and has been traveling for nine years, left Chicago on Monday along with 22-year-old Keenan Peters. Both men, who got a ride to Indiana in a friend's van, spent most of their summer in Wicker Park.
"Brice [Allen] was the most eccentric loving person ever. He would have your back in any split second," said Caldwell, who met Allen five years ago.
"I met him in New York City, just hanging out getting drunk and partying," Caldwell said. "He was the ultimate hobo. He was invincible. He would tear his shirt off like Hulk Hogan. I told him I wouldn't give him any more shirts because he kept ripping them."
When asked how he felt about Allen's death, Peters said, "You can't not be sad [about it]. He did too much. He was so sad and by himself."
Late Sunday, the park was emptier than usual with many of the transients no longer there.
Marcus Faletti, who has been homeless for decades and refuses to seek indoor shelter even when the weather gets dangerously cold, said he is happy the seasonal "gutter punks" have left.
"I don't miss them. I can't get to their mindset," Faletti said. "I just see them come and go. When weather good, they are here. When weather bad, they move."
Spence's younger brother John Schutz, 31, lives in Addison.
"We don't really hear from him very often. We hope he is OK. I feel like I find out how he is when he is in an accident and gets hurt," Schutz said of his older brother.
When asked how he feels about Spence's plans to "retire" and stay in Chicago, Schutz said, "I hope it's true. He has said that quite often and it doesn't really happen. He is my only brother. I am worried about him."
(l.) Brice J. Allen and Daniel Caldwell. [Daniel Caldwell/Facebook]
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