Around this town, especially in the Haight, where I live, “gutter punk” has become synonymous for something along the lines of distasteful street varmint. Mentioning those two words together usually incites a reaction from people… a groan or some version of “fucking terrible.”
When I first moved here, back in ’04, my attention was always drawn to these street kids and I usually gave them money. But now, I (like many of my fellow city-dwellers) barely even notice when I step over a gutter punk, or a flock of gutter punks, so accustomed I’ve become to seeing their grimy bodies sprawled in front of doorways, trying to sell me weed, using their puppies to lure cash or food from tourists, holding tragic cardboard signs that have phrases like “Why lie? Need money for beer” to “Please spare change for bus fare” scrawled in black marker.
Who are these creatures? Are they all 19-year-olds from upstate New York or Sacramento or Florida, fleeing affluent homes in a disgraceful attempt to keep ablaze that path set forth by the original transient hippies of the ‘60s? Are they SF State dropouts? Artists astray? Are some of them as mean as they seem? Are they willing to tell me why they’re here, hanging out in the laundry mat and clogging up the entrance to the Golden Gate Park?
Whoever they are, they’ve wormed their way into the fabric of this town for decades now. Even Gavin Newsom’s sit/lie law that passed last year hasn’t done much to rid the streets and sidewalks of the people and their puppies. Gutter punks are here to stay.
With this column, I don’t mean to celebrate gutter punks, or ridicule them. I simply want to find out what the hell they’re doing here. I want to know where they sleep when it rains and how successful they are at panhandling.
I want to find out how these ultimate broke-asses survive.
Check back for weekly profiles of these urban campers, in succinct Q&As. Let’s find out who the gutter punks are.