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Local ‘gutterpunks’ get magazine’s nod

Local ‘gutterpunks’ get magazine’s nod

May 2, 2003
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ — Nineteen-year-old Kyle wears camouflage pants and a bomber jacket. He eats from Dumpsters, takes drugs, and has no aspirations except to survive on the streets.

The self-described downtown "gutterpunk" has lived in poverty since childhood in Salinas.

Kyle said a half-dozen friends have overdosed, and that he’ll be surprised if he lives past 30. So it came as a shock when he found out the May 15 edition of Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Santa Cruz one of the "best places" to be a gutterpunk like himself.

"(Expletive) Rolling Stone," he said, adding he wanted to find the people interviewed for the story, "because I’m going to (beat them up.)"

On Thursday, area street kids, law enforcement and service providers gave a mixed reaction to the national magazine’s description of the little-known local gutterpunk scene.

Gutterpunks, according to Rolling Stone, are "pirates of the railroad," youths raised in poverty now on the street, often abusing alcohol and drugs, living by their wits or their fists, sometimes riding the rails. The article paints a bleak picture of the lifestyle, but also describes a fierce camaraderie: "Back in their little world they watch one another’s back with the loyalty and ferocity of soldiers in a foxhole."

Rolling Stone puts Santa Cruz on a national gutterpunk circuit along with Berkeley; Los Angeles; Seattle; Austin, Texas; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; and Eugene and Portland, Ore.

Rolling Stone’s recognition follows two more complimentary references to Santa Cruz. The city recently was named one of the top 10 Christmas vacation spots by Travel and Leisure, and one of the top 50 best places to live in America by Men’s Journal.)

The article does not gloss over the gritty lives of the street youth, but it quotes a gutterpunk calling Santa Cruz "one of the best cities to crash in" because "college students accept the homeless kids there," and "the beach means they don’t have to shower at the shelter to be clean."

The story gives no estimate of the size of the local gutterpunk scene, and homeless-service providers say that’s hard to pinpoint.

The 2002 Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project’s comprehensive report shows county residents are suffering under the latest economic troubles.

"There was a huge jump (from 2001 to 2002) in people who said they’d been homeless within the past year," said Paul Brindel of the Community Action Board, a local nonprofit that works with the poor.

All told, about 8,300 people said they’d been homeless in the previous 12 months, he said, noting that was a jump from 1.5 to 3.2 percent of the general population.

But Brindel said the incidence of homelessness among young people here is higher than in the general population. He said studies show about 9 percent of the area residents between age 18 and 24, have been homeless over the past year.

Brindel said young people are vulnerable to homelessness because the age group is generally low-paid, many are students, and a combination of high rents and low wages "make them incredibly vulnerable to a small crisis."

The figures, however, are far from perfect. They reflect the county’s year-round poor population and don’t track the movements and numbers of more transient youth.

Homeless Services Center director Ken Cole said in any given year, the center serves about 320 different youths, about one-sixth of the roughly 2,000 people it serves. He didn’t think that was an increase from previous years, saying the number is up somewhat, "but the general (poor) population is up."

The center serves meals to the young but doesn’t shelter people under 18 unless they are with adults.

Other services available locally to homeless youth include Above The Line, a nonprofit that reaches out to "at risk" young people. Drug- and alcohol-treatment programs also are geared especially to teens.

Cole, however, said a gutterpunk scene is "news to me. Riding the rails is very dangerous and chancy. I question whether this is real in terms of any great number of people."

Police Chief Steve Belcher also dismissed any characterization of an unusually large influx of "street kids" compared to previous years. He said the population ebbs and flows. Most of the people police deal with regularly are young, "but that hasn’t changed in 30 years," he said.

John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which runs through Santa Cruz, said he hasn’t heard many complaints about people riding freight cars illegally in this county, at least compared to railway hub towns.

However, Timothy Maroni of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project said he’s familiar with the gutterpunk scene, and finds it striking they are typically white and very young, "just 14, 15, 16.

"It makes sense (Santa Cruz) shows up on a map," Maroni said. "We’re on that circuit. Kids come to town for a couple of weeks or months and are on their way."

He said the kids are very poor, often with histories of abuse, and should not be confused with "those kids who came from the East Coast, trust fund kids who followed the Grateful Dead."

Kyle is tall and sturdy, with a closely shaved head and a bomber jacket. He said he leans toward the "skinhead" side of gutterpunks.

"I guess I’m proud of my white skin," he said with a shrug.

Pedestrians on Pacific Avenue gave him a wide berth. He spoke of a generalized anger and a feeling he can’t ever "get out."

Kyle said he wants no help. He stressed he’s no runaway. He said he panhandles, hitches and hops trains, but "you always end up coming to a dead end."

He looked askance at the Rolling Stone piece, saying Santa Cruz is not big enough, and "doesn’t have the capacity" to sustain much of a scene. He said many in Santa Cruz have housing but pose as gutterpunks, taking on the trappings of the lifestyle without really living it. One acquaintance, Marz, 31, said some kids "go to the mall to buy a punk rock perfume called Stench" because they’re slumming.

Kyle said he fights when he must but is mindful of an outstanding warrant for his arrest stemming from incidents in Los Angeles for fighting and drug use.
Contact Dan White at

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