Angela: What do we do about the gutter punks?
You've seen them in the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater, accosting and menacing tourists and locals for money, restaurant leftovers, and sometimes even drugs.
You've seen them at the riverfront, sleeping and drinking in the grass.
You've seen them in the neutral grounds across the city, panhandling for change on major thoroughfares.
They're gutter punks, sometimes also called "crusties" and "oogles," and according to some who live and work in the area, they are becoming more aggressive.
They squat in abandoned buildings, usually traveling in packs, and this particular strain of homeless person and their dogs have thoroughly permeated downtown New Orleans, much to the alarm of residents, businesses and tour guides.
Dianne Honore, a French Quarter tour guide, was in the news recently when one of her tours was practically attacked by a group of gutter punks, who grabbed at high-school age kids demanding drugs and getting in a physical altercation with the groups' chaperones. Dianne contacted police but her experience in getting justice or answers for the attack has not been satisfactory, to say the least.
As New Orleans becomes one of the biggest vacation & convention cities in the world, how do we handle this?
For answers, I turned to Edward Bonin and Elizabeth Jones from the "Drop-In Center" at the Tulane School of Medicine, which provides medical and social services for runaway and homeless youths. We also spoke to Officer John Dobard, who is with the NOPD Crime Prevention Unit.
So who are the gutter punks?
"These kids come in a couple different subgroups; they have local homeless kids and traveling kids that travel across the country and start coming here in October," said Mr. Bonin. "The weather is pleasant so they tend to flock down here. It's easy for them to obtain alcohol, drugs and spare change. We don't typically see a lot a violent behavior from that group of kids."
Elizabeth Jones echoed that sentiment. "I feel like they are a misunderstood population, and I feel like sometimes people go in with the notion that they are aggressive drug and aclohol users, so you expect nothing from them and you can't see who that person really is."
Is it a choice to be gutter punk?
"Sometimes," they told me. "A large percentage of these young kids are aging out of foster care, and when they turn 18, they are just put out in the street. They don't have the wherewithal to nagivate these different systems that are available to them, and thats how then you end up in the streets. Some are traveling just to see the country. Not to say that they cant be aggressive or violent, we just don't see that as much."
When we see these young people in the Quarter and they're coming toward you and displaying aggression, what are we supposed to do?
"They're aggressive because that is their nature in terms of getting what they're looking for, so therefore, you should make sure that if you are approached one of them, stay out of their reach, keep moving, and contact the police department. If they put their hands on you, and you believe there is the potentional for them to do bodily harm, they will be subject to arrest," said Officer Dobard.
It is a fascinating look at a complex issue that touches on compassion, public safety, homelessness, personal responsibility and more. Take a listen to the whole interview by clicking the link below.
FULL AUDIO: Angela talks about gutter punks
Photo via tuppus, Flickr