Attack of the Phantom Street Kids

Wherein Telegraph Avenue merchants brace for an invasion of the same drug-addled street kids who shut down business on the strip four years ago.

Holy Christ, they’re coming. Those goddamn street kids are back, bringing their rigs and dogs and external-frame backpacks and communicable diseases with them, table-scrounging and spare-changing and planting their tweaker ass-cheeks right in front of our goddamn stores. Just what are you gonna do about it?

That was the message three weeks ago, when thirty Telegraph Avenue merchants crowded into Mario’s La Fiesta and backed city councilmen Kriss Worthington and Gordon Wozniak into a corner. Word had broken that a new wave of homeless kids had blown into town and begun squatting in front of Amoeba Records and Cody’s Books. Forty street junkies from Seattle, dismayed by the rising price of heroin, hopped the freight lines down to Berkeley, chasing cheap smack. Now they were scratching their track marks right in front of would-be shoppers, driving down sales in a recession economy. Where are the cops?

Telegraph has seen this problem before. The plague of street kids reached epidemic proportions four years ago, when dozens of gutter punks swarmed the Avenue and invoked squatters’ rights on the sidewalks. As the empty forties and dog shit began to pile up, disconcerted business owners, led by Cody’s owner Andy Ross, flooded Mayor Shirley Dean with phone calls. Suddenly Dean, who faced a reelection challenge from progressive lawyer Don Jelinek, had herself a campaign issue and crusaded to bring the vermin in line. This, the merchants later rued, only made things worse. Terrified shoppers decided that Fourth Street’s adult-contemporary vibe was more congenial than Telegraph’s rough trade, and sales plummeted further. At a time when everyone else was raking in the NASDAQ green, sales on Telegraph were flat.

This time, according to a source inside City Hall, the merchants decided to handle the kids quietly. Step up the police patrols, vamp up the social services, but for God’s sake, keep the press away from the Avenue. Berkeley has always had an ambivalent relationship with street kids. The city’s generous ethos has led residents to cut the kids some slack and provide a refuge from the bombed-out urban zones of Portland and Los Angeles. But if too many street youth assemble in town, business takes a nosedive. Once again, it seemed, the city was going to have to walk a fine line between its ideals and the hard discipline needed to bring the problem to heel.

Then the problem just went away. Turns out there never was a plague of smack-addled Seattle scumbags. It was all a strange, collective hallucination, fueled by rumor, innuendo, and economic anxiety. After about a month, everyone suddenly came to their senses. Call it the Case of the Street Kids That Never Were.

Only last week, you could see the rumors at work on Telegraph. Out in front of Cody’s, workers attached steel slats to the concrete plant boxes on the facade. Delicately dubbed “ass guards” by bookstore employees, they are designed to keep street kids from sitting on the planters and begging passersby. “Everybody was sitting on the planters and killing my plants, so I figured they could go sit somewhere else,” says Cody’s owner Ross. Across the street at Amoeba Records, staff began blaring Air Supply and Debby Boone out of the store’s PA system, in hopes that such uneasy listening would drive the punks off. According to manager Steve Countryman, the store’s historic tolerance of the homeless had been sorely taxed by a new crew of kids. “It’s noticeably worse than it’s been in previous years, although it’s not as bad as it was in ’98,” he says. “The Air Supply definitely worked for a while.”

Berkeley is part of the national street kid circuit, and every year as the weather warms up, a few dozen kids hop freight trains and hitch south into town. But this year, Telegraph merchants claimed, the population spiked, and hard drug use began to get worse and worse, threatening to scare shoppers away after last year’s sales had already plunged 6.4 percent, according to the latest figures. And then the rumors started, whispers of a new pack of junkies looking to score. “I heard it from the cops — they were doing a lot of drugs, and when that happens, it gets pretty bad,” Ross says.

Ross has good reason to be worried; according to Berkeley police spokesperson Mary Kusmiss, People’s Park dealers have been using his store’s bathroom to conduct their business. But these phantom junkies from up north seem to have been nothing more than a myth that emerged out of the ether. Kusmiss claims that while the People’s Park crackheads have started switching to smokable methamphetamine, there’s barely any heroin on the Avenue at all. “Alcohol is the biggest problem up there, young people with forties or boxed wine that they take out of the box,” she says. “It’s called the space bag on the street.”

According to volunteers with Berkeley’s needle exchange program, the number of Telegraph clients has remained steady at fifteen a day, and they’re mostly older, stable junkies, not homeless youth. And according to Jack La-Yung, a former gutter punk who now works as a bouncer for the University Lutheran Chapel’s drop-in center for Telegraph street kids, the center’s intake records show that the latest arrivals hail from Reno, Salinas, and Portland — no more than two homeless kids made it here from Seattle. “You don’t see any of the problem kids out here, man,” he says. “They left years ago, but the economy’s in the shitter, and they wanna blame someone.”

Part of the hysteria undoubtedly originated with “Night on the Street,” a local chapter of the radical homeless service provider Catholic Worker. For years, Night on the Street has spent its evenings serving food to the Telegraph homeless. While a laudable endeavor, the group’s habit of serving not in People’s Park but right in front of businesses recently sparked a nasty brawl in front of the entrance to Cody’s. According to “Kevin,” a homeless man who has enjoyed Night on the Street’s hospitality, the practice has always had a certain Oxfam-goes-to-Mogadishu vibe to it. People hang around waiting for the food to arrive, and when Night on the Street volunteers drive up, recipients shove one another in an effort to get in front. Last month, two homeless women got into a fistfight while waiting for the food, prompting a six-car response from the cops and generally spooking the local merchants. City officials responded by threatening to yank the group’s permit unless it took its operation back to the park. The residual tension may have contributed to the merchants’ spooky nerves.

But that’s all this was in the end — tension. There ain’t no Seattle junkies on the Avenue, and there never were. Yes, Kusmiss claims we had a higher influx of kids than usual, but she also claims they all split two weeks ago en route to Mardi Gras. We’re in a recession, and Telegraph shows no sign of recovering any time soon. Christmas sales were particularly low, and the Seattle rumor may have simply been an echo of the merchants’ anxiety. As for the kids who showed up in just enough numbers to cause a panic before slipping away to New Orleans, laissez les bons temps rouler.

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