A new group of Williamsburg residents have been showing up all over the media lately: gutter punks. The Daily News kicked off a flurry of press on July 15th when they documented the spread of these vagrants, also called “crusties” or “heroin hobos,” who have taken advantage of the economic downturn by squatting in unfinished North Brooklyn luxury apartment developments.
The punks appear around the Bedford Avenue during the evening hours, often with dogs in tow, to bum change and cigarettes off commuters returning home from work. According to the News, many of the punks are college dropouts from middle-class families who jumped on freight trains to New York for the panhandling prospects, traveling in packs and spending their profits on drugs and alcohol.
Reaction to the squatters and the ensuing press have been mixed, firing up heated discussions amongst residents and shopkeepers. Some owners and employees of businesses around the L train stop found the articles alarmist and the so-called infestation blown out of proportion.
“As long as they don’t block the door, I don’t care,” said Fabio Roberti, owner of Earwax records on North 5th and Bedford. “They’re not bothering anyone as far as I can tell.” Roberti blames the ruckus over the gutter punks on new condo owners, noting that “there have always been street people around here.” (Though one Earwax customer noted that they should take better care of their animals.)
And in economic times like these, many businesses have the attitude that paying customers are paying customers. The vagrants’ money—the News claims that some earn as much as $15 an hour begging in Manhattan—is still green, regardless of their supposed olfactory offenses. “They come in, they buy things and they leave,” said Alp Surhan, part owner of Doner, a Turkish eatery that opened earlier this summer. “It’s not bad for business.”
Jesus Acosta, who works at late night munching hotspot Anna Maria Pizzeria, agrees. “Everything is cool [with them],” said Acosta. “They spend money [here], it’s fine.”
Still, the influx of vagrants leaves some shopkeepers frustrated, citing the punks’ penchant for violence and tendency to bring their mangy mutts into cafes with them, as well using restaurant bathrooms to shoot up heroin. “A month ago they beat up a guy for no reason,” said Yuri Garcia, a 22-year-old cashier at New York Muffins near North 6th street.
Garcia observed that squatters discourage other customers from coming into the store, swarming the pastry shop and wearing out their welcome fast. “One guy will buy one thing and the whole gang will come sit in here for hours, asking for cups of water” Garcia complained. “They smell bad, [and] their dogs bark.”
But the shopkeepers don’t wonder why they chose Williamsburg to live and panhandle in. “They came because there’s money,” said Surhan. “So did I.”