Since the early ’80s, Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village has been a primary hub for New York’s homeless. Back in 1988, a full-on battle for the park pitted squatters, punks, skinheads and housing activists against police, shop owners and what were then known as yuppie scum.
Immortalized as the Tompkins Square Riot, a military-style assault by the city and police to occupy the park resulted in the unintended consequence of uniting the homeless park dwellers and the agents of gentrification.
Still, when calm returned, the ten-acre park became a metaphor for gentrification: Thirty years later, a new arrival to the East Village residences near the site can expect to budget around $5,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Nowadays, the street scene is smaller, but the battle remains the same: police vs. homeless.
The young street kids in New York are not your traditional homeless. They are part of a community. Some even seem to be living on the streets by choice. These kids, numbering in the hundreds at peak times around the summer, are a tightly insulated clique that shuns media coverage and outsiders.
Somehow, they seem to be okay with me. During the past few months, I’ve spent some time mingling among the city’s young homeless.
It started this past August. One of the street kid’s dogs was shot by the NYPD. There was a national outpouring of love for the poor dog, which survived and was adopted. But the homeless alcoholic kid whose dog was shot? He went back to his home country of Poland and now lives on the streets there, where life is much harder. His only help came from activist Andrea Stella, 26, who bought his ticket home and occasionally sends him money.
Stella founded The Space at Tompkins in 2009.
“I’d say in the last four months, there have been over 80 overdoses reversed because of our Narcan distribution. That’s a crazy number of lives saved.”
“When I started the organization, all of the kids were hanging out in Tompkins Square Park, and it had been like that for years,” she says of her group, which focuses on both short-term and long-term outreach and care. “One year in, there was a lot of heightened police presence and overwhelming community backlash surrounding the Travelers, and they were pretty much kicked out of the park.”
This past summer in Union Square Park, a ten-acre park a few blocks north of Tompkins, I met a kid who called himself Red. He sat among a crowd of ten or so street kids, all ducking a girl flinging a hula hoop around her waist. The 24-year-old was a self-proclaimed “traveling bum,” originally from Virginia. He’d been hopping rails for almost ten years. His red hair was dread-locked around open sores on his face.
Red wore basketball gear and looked like a kid from the mall who’d been shipped to an Afghan opium den for a few years. He didn’t look like a punker. He was high and started telling me the hierarchy of street kids, laying out the scene within the homeless scene.
Red shifted topics and began to detail the NYPD’s war on street kids: “It began last spring. They kicked us out of Tompkins, then from the St. Marks Church, then the churchyard on 11th Street, and now they're kicking us out of here [Union Square]. They really hate the dogs. They take our animals.”
He got distracted. Two police officers were arresting a friend within eyesight. Red fled the park.
I later asked Stella, who knows Red, to break down the scene.
“Home Bums are the homeless folks who are lifers in one place—it can refer to the older homeless crowd that’s usually drinking on the south side of Tompkins, or used as an insult to a Traveler if they’ve made roots in one place for too long and are still on the streets,” she says.
Home Bums are just, well, bums, and they aren’t really part of Stella’s scene.
Stella’s main crew are the Travelers or “the kids who find a way to go from city to city, state to state, sometimes on trains, definitely move around with the seasons. Usually they leave home in their teens and then stay disconnected from mainstream society for years.”
Then there are Crust Punks: “They look like the Travelers, and sometimes you can be both, but they usually started out following the crust punk music scene. The distinctions aren’t so obvious to outsiders, but are obvious within the community.”
Stella verified Red’s version of police aggression: The cops decided to move on Tompkins. The kids wound up in another precinct, the precinct that covers Union Square. Those officers then moved against the kids. And, yes, Stella says, the cops do like to take the kids’ dogs.
Winter brings an annual exodus. For now, the street kid population is small. The battle between the bums and police has temporarily ceased.
Every Thursday afternoon, Stella sets up at Tompkins with food and supplies, including an opiate overdose reversal agent. “I’d say in the last four months, there have been over 80 overdoses reversed because of our Narcan distribution. That’s a crazy number of lives saved.”
There’s no party like a Traveler party. They’ll sit around with guitars, brown bag beers, old-school boom boxes and go as hard as a college tailgate party—but lasting for entire weeks or even a whole season. Even at a recent Thursday session with Stella, the demented carnival atmosphere persisted—about a dozen camo-clad kids yelled and jumped around and pelted one another with donated shoes and bags.
“My crew likes to party,” Stella admits. “Opiates are used, and sometimes they are the drug of choice, sometimes alcohol prevails. We’re lucky in New York City because there’s really no crystal meth on the scene. If people were tweaking all day, I swear we couldn’t do our work. But also, hands down, the worst drug people take that makes our work almost impossible? Alcohol.
“I’ve never felt threatened by anyone who’s high on dope—clearly because they’re nodding out—or even crack because they’re jumpy. But I’ve felt incredibly threatened by people completely demolished on Four Loko. They’ll turn on you at the drop of a dime. No other drug does that. And I’m not judging—I’m a wino—I’m just pointing it out.”
I wondered where the Travelers go in winter. “Most people travel south or west, but the ones who stay are still on the streets. The people who stick around are mostly people who want to stay in New York. It’s nice in the winter because without as many people, we can make some headway with individuals.”
Sadly, the slow growth of the economy and incredibly high unemployment rates for people under 25 years old will contribute to more kids becoming homeless in the coming years. And when the city thaws out this spring, the battle between the street kids and the cops will be in season again.
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Ray LeMoine was born in Boston and lives in New York. He’s done humanitarian work in Iraq and Pakistan and has written for various media outlets, including The New York Times, New York magazine and The Awl.