Gutter Punks: On the Streets With Portland’s Lost Tribe

Meet the latest outlaw nation to hit the streets of Portland. Call them road warriors, crusties or squatters—just don’t call them hippies.

This story originally ran in the Sept. 11, 1996, issue of Willamette Week.

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Portland this past summer, you’ve probably noticed a new band of vagabonds on the streets. They’re homeless, but they’re not exactly street kids. They’re wanderers, but they’re not exactly hippies. They’re not skaters, streetwalkers, drug dealers, gang-bangers, bag ladies, drunks, tramps or any of the other exotic species who have hollowed out a niche in the shady parts of town.

They are something quite different.

On any weekday afternoon, they are out in force, spaynging (their word for spare-changing) along the MAX tracks or outside the hip boutiques of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. They have a distinctive look: rings dangling from their ears, lips and noses; tattoos; washed-out dye jobs; scraggly mohawks; black boots. Their clothes are a cacophony of green and black, thrift-store castaways mottled with leather patches or Army surplus fatigues studded with bottle caps. Their faces are smeared with dirt. They have backpacks, bedrolls, skateboards, and sometimes even dogs or cats. They often stink.

Sure, they’re intimidating: That’s the idea. Like time travelers from some post-apocalyptic future, they have materialized on the streets of Portland, the latest manifestation of a society whose traditional institutions—family, schools, neighborhoods—seem increasingly remote to its young people. They are modern-day nomads, adherents of a peculiar brand of nihilism, wandering the netherworld where Sid Vicious meets Jerry Garcia.

They are the gutter punks, unlucky rebels whose romantic notions of life on the road have succumbed to the reality of life on the street.

As with any emerging cultural trend, the outlines of the gutter-punk phenomenon are still blurry. Workers at Portland’s youth agencies call them road warriors; the punks themselves also use terms like crusties, squatters or travelers.

Local law-enforcement types began to notice them this spring, mostly in Pioneer Courthouse Square, the South Park Blocks and Southeast Hawthorne. As to their numbers, it’s anyone’s guess, though a stroll through their usual haunts on any given day would probably reveal about 50 of them, along with perhaps twice as many wannabes.

Gutter punks are scavengers who survive by panhandling and Dumpster-diving. They sleep under bridges or in “squats” (abandoned buildings). Few finished high school.

Most are not originally from Portland, though they do attract and hang out with local kids. Typically nomadic, they wander from city to city, hitchhiking or hopping freight trains. They are older than most street kids—usually between 17 and 24.

No one is certain where or when it all began. “My guess is that it originated with the Seattle grunge movement,” says Andrew Estep, executive director of Northwest Network for Youth, a Seattle-based consortium of youth agencies, who first noticed them five years ago. Whatever their origin, gutter punks have been spotted by youth agencies throughout the West Coast, and as far east as Minneapolis, Austin and New Orleans where they tend to go during winter.

To some, gutter punks seem like little more than updated hippies. “They’re the 1990s’ version of the counterculture movement,” says Portland Police Central Precinct Commander Ed May. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s something different, and darker, about the gutter-punk movement.

Every generation has its rebels, of course. From the Beats to the Flower Children, there’s something in the psyche of American teen-agers that feels compelled to infuriate their parents, to spurn bourgeois conformity, and to chase their own vision of Utopia, however unrealistic.

Gutter punks however, represent a fundamentally outlaw culture. “They’re further down the road,” says Jerry Fest, director of Willamette Bridges, which operates programs for

homeless youth. “In some ways, they have more in common with gangs than with traditional street youth. They form a definite cadre of people who have clearly defined roles. They are no longer going through a growth phase. This is who they have become.”

Gutter punks don’t seem to care that much about Utopia or anything else. Theirs is a philosophy of pessimism and apathy. “Gutter punks are people who don’t give a fuck about how they look,” says Bo, 21, with a shake of his mohawk. “They don’t think it’s cool to be dirty. They just don’t care.”

Their parents are administrators, nurses, cops, carpet-layers, drug addicts, computer execs and construction workers. Some were abused as kids; others were spoiled rotten. The remarkable thing is how quickly their true origins—even their names—become erased by membership in the group.

Popcorn. Grumpy. Mohawk. Wolf. Dog-Boy. Skunk.

Individually, they are misfits; together they are a tribe. In tribe, for the first time in their lives, they taste that intoxicating highball of freedom and acceptance. They find an identity.

This is the central paradox of the gutter punks. They spit on the society that spawned them. They detest authority. They thrive on disgust. Yet despite all this, more than anything the gutter punks represent one of our oldest and most powerful conventions—the need to belong.

Sprawled in front of the back-to-school display windows at Meier & Frank, David Hudnall takes a dented tin of black shoe polish from his pack and dabs at his $180 Doc Martens. Bought for him by a former sugar-daddy, they are his second-most-prized possession.

His real pride and joy is his leather jacket. Wrinkled, crumpled, stepped on and slept in a thousand times, the jacket-has a personality (and an aroma) all its own. The epaulets bristle with metal spikes, which he picked out and installed himself. Hand-drawn skulls and punk band logos crowd the arms and back, while the edges are studded with the aluminum tops of disposable lighters. A small stuffed dog, known as a pound puppy, is stapled to the lapel with a safety pin.

At 21, David has lived through three brutal winters on the streets. Originally from Albany, a hard-pressed logging town near Corvallis, he and his twin brother, Brian, left home because they were tired of fighting with their father and stepmother. “We just weren’t getting along,” David explains. “Arguing all the time, fighting day after day.”

The twins came from a middle-class, if unconventional, background. Their parents split up when they were less than 2 years old. Raised by their father until the age of 4, they lived with their mother until the age of 8, when they returned to dad again. “By the time I got them back, they were really hard to handle,” says Dan Hudnall, a construction worker who still lives in Albany. “I really had to work on it to keep them in line. I struggled through it.”

Dan Hudnall did his best: movies, fishing trips, Disneyland. But the twins’ behavior just got worse. By the time they were 17, Dan was on a first-name basis with all the local cops. “They thought it was cool to get in trouble,” he says. “They won’t follow rules.” Finally they refused to go to school. They moved out on their 18th birthday.

The twins moved to Portland, where they spiraled down through a succession of relatives, friends, couches and doorways, winding up on the street. “It was kind of scary at first,” David says. “We didn’t know what to expect.” They hooked up with a homeless friend, who showed them the ropes: how to find food, clothes, squats and medical care.

Privately, most gutter punks say it’s easy to find food and clothing on the street. Mere survival is seldom the issue. Rather, their existence is dominated by the quest for something to break the monotony: hopping freight trains, going to shows, drinking and doing drugs.

With concentrated effort, a gutter punk can panhandle $20 to $30 a day, enough for a steady supply of booze. Pot is more often a matter of bartering. Suburban teen-agers often approach them looking to score. The gutter punks will broker a deal, and share a free bowl in return. Sometimes the gutter punks do sell weed, but the fear of getting busted keeps the dealing strictly small-time.

Many gutter punks stick to beer and pot, but others succumb to the lure of harder drugs. The Hudnall twins began using speed—the ideal street drug, according to David. “It’s the only thing keeping me going,” he says. “It gives me energy. You can stand up for yourself. You feel tougher, more dominant. It helps you so you aren’t as hungry. It warms you up. It’s perfect. It’s got everything you need for being on the streets.”

Before long, they were both strung out. To feed their habits, they turned tricks on Stark Street. The standard fee was $40. “Enough for a shot of speed and some spending money,” David says, adding that he and his brother have given up prostitution.

David’s drug addiction landed him 11 months in the Oregon State Correctional Institution. He got out in April, and shot up the same day.

Dan Hudnall says he has often tried to help his sons off the street, but to no avail. “I don’t understand why they’re doing these things,” he says. “They’ve had so many offers of help. But they just want to stay wherever they’re at. I seldom hear from them anymore. There’s nothing I can do right now. It’s a waiting game. They’ve got to get to a point where they’re ready.”

On a recent night, David tries to spaynge enough money to go to the City Nightclub with some of the other punks. One of them is Jen, 14. Her hair is cropped short, except for a long faded green tuft at the front. Her arms are grimy with “squat rot”—caked-on dirt from sleeping outside. Kicked out of her parents’ house, she lived with her grandparents in Puyallup, Wash., until January, when she ran off.

Jen has been doing speed for two years, but recently decided to start shooting it up. “I couldn’t eat any- thing from snorting it,” she says. “It was destroying my mouth. So I had no choice, really. Except to quit, I guess.” Moistening a rag with her tongue, she wipes the dirt off her face, then stares into a tiny compact to put on some makeup.

A stone’s throw from the Multnomah Athletic Club, where the city’s elite burn off calories on high-tech treadmills, lies a vacant burned-out lot, overgrown with weeds. A dense snarl of blackberry vines conceals a doorway to a precious secret: a forgotten basement that survived the fire.

Bulging garbage bags crowd the long corridor that leads to the hideaway, an underground room measuring about 10 feet by 14 feet. Street kids have camped in this place for years, but right now it’s home to Puffin and Jennifer, both 19. (For what it’s worth, they consider themselves more hippies than gutter punks.) They call it the Catacombs.

Despite the day’s sweltering heat, it’s cool inside, and black as boot polish. There is a stench of rancid socks. Jennifer lights a pair of candles, revealing a jumble of blankets on the floor, piled several thick to build a comfortable bed. An ancient circuit breaker, rusted and flaking, serves as a larder, stocked with generic Rice Krispies, peanut butter, Ramen noodles, tuna, bread and a bottle of vinegar.

Ragged clothes are piled high in one corner, while Jennifer’s rabbit. Fiver, secured to her owner by a long beaded chain, nibbles on a carrot in the other. A battered transistor radio plays old Steely Dan tunes.

At first, it seems like an inhospitable place. God only knows who’s pissed in here; you wonder what’s mixed in with the dirt on the floor. But when you tire of sitting on your haunches, when you finally decide to relax and stretch out on the blanket, when your eyes become accustomed to the candlelight and your nose to the smell, when you find yourself singing along to songs you forgot years ago, you begin to see why the kids stay here. They feel comfortable. They feel safe. Here they make their own rules. “It’s not a squat,” Puffin says. “It’s our home.”

Not all squats are so cozy. Under a freeway overpass on the edge of downtown, trucks rumble past at top speed, bellowing exhaust arid grit into the air. The area is strewn with trash, including a couple of cases of hefeweizen. Two syringes nestle on a handy ledge. A half-dozen gutter punks are out here this morning, sleeping under juniper bushes caked with dirt. The sun has been up for hours, but the punks do not stir.

Many Portlanders hurry past the gutter punks with fear in their eyes. But despite their outlaw swagger, gutter punks are seldom involved in major crime, according to local cops. “People expect these folks to be like Attila the Hun,” Commander May says. “That’s not accurate.”

In fact, the punks themselves are quite vulnerable—police officers can (and often do) arrest them for minor offenses, such as aggressive panhandling, blocking the sidewalk, littering or urinating. Their squats are busted up on a regular basis.

As a result, they adopt what biologists would call “Batesian mimicry”: an intimidating appearance and foul language to scare away potential predators. But their bark is worse than their bite. Most of the aggressive panhandling comes not from true gutter punks, but from grommets.

Grommets are wannabes. Often they still live at home, or have only been on the street a short time. They can be hard to distinguish, though a brand-new pair of $200 boots or a fresh pink dye-job is often a pretty good tipoff.

Scorned by the older gutter punks, grommets are nevertheless an essential part of the culture. “Often these kids are having problems at home,” says youth worker Jerry Fest. “They feel lonely. When they go downtown, they find other kids they can relate to. Often, for the first time in their lives, they are able to develop a real bond. That is incredibly seductive. They begin to create a family on the street that is more important to them than their own safety. Whatever the family does, the kid will follow. A kid can get sucked into street culture in a matter of weeks.”

Though she wouldn’t admit it, Star (who wouldn’t divulge her real name) is a good example. A 14-year-old girl from Gresham, Star clearly doesn’t have the ground-in grunge look, though she’s working on it, with her mohawk, lip ring, nose ring and tattered Circle Jerks jacket. Star hasn’t lived at home with her mom for a couple of months. “We weren’t getting along,” she says matter-of-factly. Spaynging with a group of gutter punks on Southeast Hawthorne, she sleeps in the alcove of a nearby church. She’s been down to juvenile hall many times for minor offenses like shoplifting. What about school? She’s not sure. Maybe she’ll go in October, if she’s still in town. It all depends. Right now, she’s happy just hanging out, trying to score a 40- ouncer or a couple of bong hits.

Fest and other youth workers say the vast majority of street kids have suffered some form of abuse at home. While gutter punks tend to be guarded about their family history, many obviously suffer from low self-esteem. One young woman calls herself Cunt; another has carved the words “FUCKED UP” in her forearm with a razor blade.

“Getting kids off the street is not just a matter of giving them food, clothes and shelter,” Fest says. “I wish it were that easy.”

No one really seems to know what to do about the gutter punks. Local youth agencies try to build up trust with a nonjudgmental, hands-off attitude. At a certain point, so the theory goes, the romance of street life will wear thin, and kids will begin to ask for help. Greenhouse and Outside In offer drop-in centers; Willamette Bridges runs a night shelter. All can lead to transitional programs, designed to get kids back into permanent housing and into classrooms.

But agencies agree that gutter punks are particularly difficult to reach—if only because they tend to be older and more set in their ways. Many of the gutter punks are too old to be served by youth agencies, but at the same time they shun the uncool missions and shelters designed for the adult homeless population. “They’re totally segregated from the tramps,” says John Duke, a counselor at Outside In. “They’re scornful of homeless adults.”

Clearly, they are not monsters or freaks. If anything, they sound eerily familiar as they grouse about cops, parents and the legal system. Strike up a conversation, and you’ll see how honest and likable they can be. Perhaps they live in dirt and decorate themselves with trash as a protest against the phoniness of materialist America.

Trouble is, no one’s listening. Meanwhile, the nights are getting colder. Soon the grommets will have gone back home. Some of the gutter punks will head south, some will stay on the streets of Portland and dig in for the winter.

“NO FUTURE” was the Sex Pistols’ war cry, but like the rest of punk, it was always a ripoff. For better or worse, there is a future—and one morning the gutter punks will have to face the fact that every day they are becoming harder to distinguish from the tramps and bag ladies they despise.

Their tragedy is that their tribal identity only delays that fateful moment. And the longer they stay on the street, the harder it is to escape. “A lot of kids just think it’s a ball out here,” David Hudnall says. “They have no idea. Sometimes I think about how I’ve been out here loafing, and...I look at the older bums, how they’re all alone, and I get worried about it. I don’t want to end up like that.”

His train of thought is derailed by approaching shoppers. Another 83 cents and he’ll have enough for a pack of smokes. “Spare change?” he asks, staring at the Armani suits and the cell phones, the Nordstrom bags and the cold shoulders.