A crusty proposal: Crack down on ‘voluntary homeless’

Photo by Steve Hirsch Crusty traveler punks, like Trash Can, above, tell their stories on East Village photographer Steve Hirsch’s crustypunks.blogspot.com .
Photo by Steven Hirsch
Crusty traveler punks, like Trash Can, above, tell their stories on East Village photographer Steve Hirsch’s crustypunks.blogspot.com .



BY CHAD MARLOW  |  With the arrival of spring, the start of the warm weather tourist season is upon us, and the thought makes me shudder. I am not begrudging the 50.9 million annual visitors who pump $34.5 billion into our city’s economy. Rather, as an East Villager, I am thinking of the other tourists whose presence brings nothing positive to our city: crusties.

Before discussing our worsening crusties problem and how I propose to address it, a few initial points should be made. First, I hate the pejorative-sounding term “crusties.” Name-calling has no place in civil conversation. Nevertheless, I use the term because (1) crusties apply it to themselves and (2) it is less cumbersome than “transient, antisocial, voluntary homeless.” Second, one reason I find crusties objectionable is because I believe homelessness is a great societal tragedy, not a lifestyle choice. This is especially problematic because crusties compete for pocket-change donations with legitimately homeless persons who need that money to survive, rather than to purchase another piercing, tattoo or $10 pack of cigarettes. Third, I accept that our city’s sidewalks are, by necessity, a home of last resort for persons with nowhere else to go, but they are not a free hotel for anyone wanting to visit our city.

While crusties have been coming to our neighborhood for many years, their behavior seems to be getting more aggressive, brazen and violent. Although many of my neighbors agree, I wondered if this perception is accurate. Before proposing drastic solutions, one should be certain to accurately understand the problem. Many of us have negative personal experiences that mirror last summer’s widely reported crusties incidents, such as defacing St. Mark’s Church, allowing their dogs to urinate in Washington Square Park’s fountain where children play, frequently harassing Washington Square and Tompkins Square Park visitors and engaging in countless bloody altercations. While this demonstrates the crusties problem is significant, it does not prove it is worsening. On that point, the best evidence comes from crusties themselves.

Crustypunks.blogspot.com — an online forum providing first-person crusties observations about their community and lifestyle — contains two commentaries about crusties’ growing violence. Last summer, a crusty named Dameon remarked that, “I have been traveling for a long time and this is the worst year I’ve ever travelled cause there’s so many new people…that ruin it for a lot of people like me. I’ve been doing this for a long time so these new batches of kids who think they gotta be the hardest, baddest guy out here, you know they try to prove themselves in some weird sense and then they ruin it for people like us, they blow places up… . I’ve been coming to [Tompkins Square] park for many many many years. And I’ve I just progressively see it downgrading and downgrading and downgrading.”

Another crusty on the blog named Jamie agrees, stating, “I’m getting really sick and tired of these younger groups of crusty traveling kids that are completely utterly violent for no reason. When I first started traveling [16 years ago]…it was completely different… . There was some violence but…it [wasn’t] nearly as violent as it is now. It’s just utterly [expletive] up.”

So, beyond being a nuisance, crusties and local residents agree: Crusties are an increasingly violent threat to our community.

Beyond their escalating violence, it is valuable to see what else can be learned about crusties from crustypunks.blogspot.com, because such knowledge might help provide a solution to the problem they present. Here is what I discovered: (1) Most crusties are not from New York City; (2) almost all are homeless by choice; (3) most travel throughout the country, commonly by illegally riding trains; (4) most abuse drugs and/or alcohol, with heroin being most popular; (5) a significant minority of crusties, and likely a majority of the younger ones, are violent; and (6) quite a few own dogs (most commonly pit bulls).

My examination of crusties also led me to conclude that the increasing danger they present is largely attributable to a longstanding failure to check their aggressive behavior. Like children, crusties constantly push the envelope of authority to see what they can get away with, and when their belligerence goes unchecked, they push even harder. Some might argue crusties are attracted to the East Village and Greenwich Village because of the area’s counterculture history — and I concede that likely motivated early crusties to gravitate here — but that history is of little consequence in 2013. Rather, it is our tolerance of crusties’ behavior that leads them, year after year, to comfortably congregate in our community.

In 2010, after observing an N.Y.P.D. response to unlawful crusties behavior, a crusty called Trash Can commented, “I’m surprised they didn’t take them to jail or anything. Anywhere else. It’s crazy out here. Up north it’s crazy. In Texas, that type of stuff don’t go.” Your darn right Texas would not tolerate crusties’ behavior, and the fact that we do does not make us a more righteous, benevolent community. It makes us fools; it makes us victims; it makes us pushovers. Many crusties are nothing more than bullies who we emboldened by tolerating their hostile behavior.

It is neither fair nor accurate to blame the N.Y.P.D. for the crusties problem. Certainly, their response to crusties-related 911 calls is appallingly slow. Often by the time police arrive, the threatening behavior, and opportunity for an arrest, has passed. This can be remedied by providing law enforcement with broader authority to go after crusties based on their use of our sidewalks as a hotel.

This conclusion leads to the greatest challenge in addressing the crusties problem: How do we empower the N.Y.P.D. to crack down on crusties without risking involuntary homeless persons getting caught in the process? Surprisingly, two very bad but legally permissible types of anti-homeless laws provide guidance.

The first are those that broadly ban street sleeping. These laws, which exist in cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Miami and San Diego, have been upheld by courts in cases where alternative shelter is offered. While I believe broad anti-street sleeping laws are morally repugnant, their legal validity highlights the breadth of legislative tools at our disposal.

The second laws are those that require homeless persons to prove local residency before being allowed into a homeless shelter. Washington, D.C., has such a law and recent comments by Mayor Bloomberg suggest he wants a similar law here. To me, laws that force nonresidents to sleep out in the cold are cruel and ill-conceived. Nevertheless, they clarify that homeless persons, under certain circumstances, may be required to demonstrate residency.

So proceeding with the utmost caution and concern for protecting the involuntary homeless, I offer the following proposal: The City Council should pass a law making it unlawful to sleep or lie down on a public sidewalk, in a park or other public space between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Additional penalties would apply to those in possession of an unlicensed dog.

This legislative proposal, if it ended there, would be nothing short of an immoral attack on the homeless. That is why the law must contain numerous exceptions (“affirmative defenses”) to ensure it is applied humanely and only against voluntary homeless tourists like crusties. To that end, the law would not apply to anyone who: (1) was born in New York City; (2) ever lived in New York City for three consecutive years; (3) ever held federal, state or local government agency-issued identification bearing a New York City address; (4) ever filed an income tax return as a New York City resident; (5) for 12 consecutive months prior to first becoming homeless, resided in public or private housing in New York City; (6) for the past 12 consecutive months, lived in New York City without interruption (including time on streets); (7) is actively participating in a drug treatment program; (8) is a veteran; or (9) is in the location primarily for the purpose of engaging in political speech. Further, the law should require the Police Department to provide notice of these defenses and to use its available resources to assist persons seeking to establish one.

The penalties for violating this law would be as follows. For first offenses, the person would be taken into custody, issued a warning, provided with information regarding the penalties for a subsequent violation, advised to go to a homeless shelter, find a nonpublic place to stay or leave New York City and, if appropriate, would be offered drug treatment program information. For subsequent offenses, the person would be taken into custody and assessed a $500 fine. If the person is found guilty and cannot pay the fine, his or her personal property, up to the value of fine, would be seized. This includes items like jewelry, camping gear and backpacks, but not clothing. As further disincentive, if the person was in possession of an unlicensed dog, it would be seized and taken to an animal shelter.

Such a law would enable the N.Y.P.D. to crackdown on crusties without having to catch them threatening local residents, having sex on the streets, defecating in our doorways or committing some other violation or crime. While this proposal may be imperfect, it is good enough to warrant being proposed in the City Council now. Once introduced, there will be plenty of time to debate and refine the bill.

If our community and elected officials are serious about cracking down on crusties, here is a way to do it. Otherwise, let’s get ready to roll out the welcome mat for another increasingly violent crusties summer.

Marlow is a member of Community Board 3