As evening falls, the tribe gathers by the river, to forage for smoke and drink and food. There is safety in numbers. Members of the tribe are rarely seen alone.

Wearing studded dog collars, their Mohawks dyed orange and green, their lips and nipples pierced, the tribe lives a hard-core life on the streets, an existence largely unknown in the mainstream America they have rejected as inane, materialist and hypocritical.

They call themselves "gutter punks" and they are a new kind of homeless: white, middle-class, often bright, politically militant and homeless by choice. They come from homes they call good and bad. Not many of them are older than 21.

Their appearance and their lifestyle seem like a nightmare to many of their parents and much of society, as if all the promise of youth in America had been turned inside out, producing these nihilistic, angry, ironic spawn all dressed in black, the end result -- perhaps a bill coming due -- of decades of family disintegration, suburban boredom and national cynicism.

America has always had its rebels, and the gutter punks today can be seen as the latest in a long line, from the anarchist hobos to the Bohemians to the Beats and to the hippies. But where the hippies may have espoused peace and love and a return to the land, with drugs viewed as a path to enlightenment, today's punks seem different. Their world, for many of them, is dark, urban, dangerous, and many of the ones who drink and drug do not want visions, they want to black out.

"They're just kids. But they're kids who stick safety pins through their eyebrows and sniff paint and live in squats and scare the tourists, because most people don't understand what the hell these kids are talking about," said Tommy Ross, who runs New Orleans's Drop-In Center, where the gutter punks come to wash and stash their bundles. "They'll tell you, Hey man, I'm living off the waste of America. I don't need your money. And I don't need you.' I hear that one all the time."

"I only live for three reasons," said Eric, 20, slurring and stumbling around this city's French Quarter with his friends on a recent night. "To drink, to fight, to screw. That's what I am, an escape artist, man." Yet earlier, in the cold winter sunshine on "Hippie Hill," an amphitheater of stone steps that looks out on the Quarter's picturesque Jackson Square, Becca, 18 and sober and sweet-faced and carrying a sleepy puppy in her arms, said, "People are afraid of us, but we're not the ones who are scary." None of the advocates for the homeless or the gutter punks themselves know the size of the tribe, and "tribe" is a word many of them use to describe the subculture, complete with ritualistic piercing, tattooing and adornment. Og's entire body is pierced; Filth has stitched an anarchist patch into the palm of his hand. Was he high when he did it? "No man, look at the stitch work," Filth said. "You can't do that stoned."

Og and Filth, like many others in the tribe, use only their traveling or street names.

New Orleans, a winter haven for the tribe, may support 500 or so homeless gutter punks during Mardi Gras this month. There are probably thousands on the road at any one time. Tommy Ross reports that last year more than 2,000 kids came through the Drop-In Center, and the population seems to be increasing over the last four years.

"But numbers are real hard to guess," said Paul Rigsby, a private detective who tracks down underage runaway punks for their families. "These kids are as migratory as Canada geese."

The punks hitchhike or share a ride or hop freight trains. Others cadge rides from Greyhound lines, taking advantage of free or reduced fares offered to runaways heading home. But they do not go home. It is a just scam to get someplace else.

The circuit includes Seattle, Berkeley, Calif., Los Angeles, New Orleans, Athens, Ga., Key West, Fla., Washington, D.C., New York and Boston. There is a cave outside Tempe, Ariz. A farm in Kentucky. A creek bed in Austin. New Orleans, especially, has what punks want: Abandoned buildings to squat in. Dumpsters to dive in. A Bohemian party atmosphere. And plenty of half-full cups of beer and booze to be picked up off of the curb or trash cans or table tops, a practice known as "ground scoring," the urban punkster's equivalent of living off the land.

The walls of the bathroom at the Drop-In Center are filled with graffiti, names and dates and signs of punks passing through that read like ancient runes.

The tribe itself is subdivided. There are the true hard-core gutter punks, the kids with partially shaved skulls and orange hair and pierced eyebrows. A few go further -- the "crusty punks" refuse to bathe and say they can identify each other by body odor.

There are retro-hippies too, and Dead Heads and gays. There are also the "Gothics," those who dress all in black, with black lipstick and eyeliner and pale white faces. A few of them say they do not like to venture out in the daylight and some, like Viper, 19, wear plastic fangs.

"We feel dark forces," said Viper, who said he came from a long familial line of abusive and violent drunks. "We're the dark angels. Gothic is not a person on the outside. It's a state of mind. It's how you feel."

Viper might be a dark angel, with an upside-down crucifix smeared on his forehead, but later in a long night of wandering the French Quarter, he met up with his "sister," a young punkette he has unofficially adopted. When she gushed about another punk, "I'm in love and just want to be with him always," Viper smiled and said, "That's what's important. Love."

They were sitting in Cafe Joel, a missionary storefront on Bourbon Street that sells cheap coffee to the street kids and plays loud gospel music and hands out religious tracts with titles such as "You Can Be Debt Free!" which the punks find hilarious. But they are mostly polite. It was here that Viper asked, almost shyly, whether his black eyeliner was running.

A day in the life of a gutter punk does not begin early in the morning. The first ones are usually not seen on the streets until after noon. Many wander by the Drop-In Center late in the day, where they know others of the tribe will be.

And then begins a circuit that will go late into the night, from the center to Kaldi's coffee shop to Jackson Square to Bourbon Street and eventually, late into the night, to sleep in an empty car or doorway or, most often, a squat in an abandoned house near the Quarter. In one old ruined hotel, they have arranged themselves in the rooms, like guests in a Fellini film, crack heads on the first floor, punks on the second.

A shelter for the homeless, Covenant House, offers bed and food to the punks but, said Lou Ann McCaleb, a social worker there, few ever spend the night. "Punks don't like rules and regulations," she said.

New Orleans is full of what the punks need most: a concentrated population of capitalistic tourists, many tipsy and feeling decadent and flush. Prime targets for panhandling.

The lines change. To the twentysomething visitors, it's "Spare some change for a fellow X-er?" Or to the conventioneer, "How about some spare change so my girlfriend can get drunk and I can get laid."

Morgan, 21, in dreadlocks and traveling for the last three years, scored $1.80 with the latter. On the other end, Mouse, a Gothic with a teddy bear backpack and child's bicycle, spent an hour outside the A&P Market and panhandled a mere 8 cents. What he wanted was a pack of the cheapest cigarettes sold, the brand of choice called GPC, which Mouse said they considered "Gutter Punk Cigarettes."

Most punks are not great panhandlers, especially when compared to the local street hustlers, break dancers, shoeshine boys and the older resident winos, whom the punks call "home bums," and with whom they do not associate.

"I don't do crimes," said Robo, 19. "I ask people for money. We need to be where the tourists are. If they want to give us some of their money, dude, we'll take it. They seem to have plenty."

The punks also make money with balloon animals or braiding hair. If they're desperate, there's jobs as busboys or dishwashers, though they generally hate to work. A few, of both sexes, admitted they hustle as prostitutes.

They also look for "sugar daddies" or "sugar mommies," sympathetic tourists, strippers or waiters who will give them money or let them "couch-surf" at their homes or hotels, sometimes in exchange for sex, often not.

There is also shoplifting and petty theft and occasionally, police and punks say, some of the worst among them mug a tourist. Some punks get too "agro," meaning real aggressive.

Many of the tribe do drugs and drink, often the cheap vodka they can buy for $6.45 a fifth with a liter of orange soda included. And when some of them drink, they do so until they become roaring drunk. It is also common to "huff" spray paint.

"I am a paint head," said Riff Raff, 26, with a star tattooed on his shaved skull and boots losing their heels. "I admit it. I never lie." He showed his fingers, which glittered with silver under the street lamps.

Riff Raff sprays the paint into an empty plastic cola bottle and sucks deeply, then reels, his eyes fluttering. It looks like an intense and very bad buzz. Later, a photographer follows another group back to the squat, where they also inhale paint fumes, alternatively giggling and throwing up. They confess they huff paint when bored.

"I'm 26 but I'm 18 in my head," Riff Raff said. "I don't ever want to get old."

The numbers of punks in New Orleans has grown so that merchants and politicians from the French Quarter have begun to loudly complain about their panhandling, public urination, drunkenness and fights. The merchants circulated a picture of punks entitled: "Don't Feed the Animals."

Said Lt. Marlon Defillo, New Orleans police spokesman, "Many individuals who live and work and visit the French Quarter complain because of their appearance, their personal hygiene." But Defillo said police cannot make an arrest because of body odor.

Yet the punks say they are hassled by the police all the time and often arrested for such petty things as blocking a public walkway. Homeless advocates say the punks are often "swept" from the Quarter before the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras or other big local events. One punk claimed, jokingly, to have been arrested for "impersonating a human being."

For the misdemeanors, such as public urination, judges can sentence the punks to 90 days in jail. More than a dozen told stories of spending 10 days or more in the New Orleans jail for panhandling or sitting in a doorway.

Why the punks hit the road varies greatly. Homeless advocates suggest that many left because they were abused. "That's maybe true," said Tommy Ross. "But what is abuse? What is a good home and a bad home? Some kids come from completely awful situations. Dad's drunk and mom's a hooker. That sort of thing. But others tell me, my parents never really loved me. Or they were too busy with the careers to care about me. That sort of thing."

Paul Rigsby, the investigator, said he believes most punks come from well-to-do homes. "They're the smart kids in school. High IQs. Scholarships. But at some point along the line, our educational system failed them. For some reason, they just pack up and leave."

"The world of the yuppies means nothing to me," said Stone, 18 and covered in patches, itching from scabies. "I live on the streets. I'm a survivor and a warrior. And I drink to have visions and to escape the nightmare of my life."

What was the nightmare of his life? Stone stared ahead and then said, "My parents are rich people who have never performed a noble gesture in their lives." To prove himself noble, Stone took the 72 cents he had and handed it to a befuddled tourist. "I'm free," he said. "That proves it."

Neil, 19 and sporting green hair, said, "At 15, I ran away for all the usual dumb kid reasons. I didn't want to listen to anybody. I missed a lot of kid stuff, like proms. But I don't regret it. If you like yourself, everything that happens to you becomes part of you."

On the wall of Kaldi's coffee shop, a mother has hung a flier describing her 16-year-old daughter, street named Otto, and asking her simply to call home, her little brother misses her.

"She was a great kid, smart, straight A's," said her mom, a single mother and teacher living in Silver City, N.M., in a telephone interview. "I really liked her. Of course, I love her as a mother, but I also really liked her as a person. She was neat. It's depressing to think she could be anywhere now, anywhere in the whole world." A group of punks at the Drop-In Center were asked by a reporter what they would do in the future. A few shouted, "Party!" But others offered that they hoped to go to college, become poets, open up stores, have families, travel to Europe. Many said that at, say 25, "you're way too old to be a gutter punk." But Sunny, 19, wearing a wool cap and devouring a free sandwich, is a long way from that. "I could live in a house in Montana, with a car and a job. I just don't want to," she said. "I want to travel. This is fun. I pierce. I don't drink or do drugs. I do what I want to do." CAPTION: Skirting the French Quarter in New Orleans, above, gutter punks make their way along Rampart Street, their garb and hair reflecting views on mainstream values. Og, at left, pierced his lip and stretched an ear lobe to fit a lighted candle. CAPTION: Shane, 21, left, Patches, 18, and Scraps, 18, share a container of paint that they inhale, punks say, when they are bored or without booze. Another activity punks pursue is "ground scoring," above, which is collecting scraps of food from garbage cans or from table tops. CAPTION: Viper, left, and Sage light up on "Hippie Hill," an ampitheater of steps that looks out on Jackson Square in New Orleans. The city has what the gutter punks like, abandoned buildings to squat in and a Bohemian party atmosphere. While New Orleans may support 500 or so gutter punks, thousands probably are on the road. They live a nomadic existence in and among urban areas, roaming through the Sun Belt north to Seattle and up the East Coast to New York and Boston. CAPTION: Under a pedestrian bridge at the River Walk in the French Quarter, punks called Messiah, 19, left, Cisco, 18, Scabie, 21, Patches, 18, and Filth, 21, get drunk. CAPTION: "Look at the stitch work," says Filth about anarchist patch he sewed onto his palm. "You can't do that stoned."