HE'S SMELLY. He's ruthless. He is definitely to be avoided.
And he's homeless.
Meet Steve the Tramp, a toy villain in Walt Disney Co.'s line of Dick Tracy action figures. Now Dirty Steve may smudge the reputation of Disney, which was built on wholesome characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Homeless activists say the Tramp exploits a negative stereotype about homeless people and sends the wrong message to children.
Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby, a national toy store chain with several outlets in Western New York, has pulled Steve the Tramp from most store shelves.
And an Episcopal priest in Hartford, Conn., has made the toy No. 1 on his annual list of "Warped Toys for Christmas."
"It categorizes all bums as criminals," said Sister Jeanne Frank, homeless advocate for Adult Residential Care Advocates in Erie County. "It is an irresponsible, money-making effort on the part of Walt Disney and Playmates Toys."
Disney licensed the characters and Playmates manufactured the five-inch figures with moveable arms and legs. The toy sells for about $5.
Writing on the toy's package calls Steve a "public enemy" and says "the tramp is stinking up the city sewers."
Steve is described as an "ignorant bum with cauliflower ears, dirty and scarred from a life on the streets. You'll smell him before you see him."
On top of that, "he has dozens of homeless children combing the city, bringing him food, money and anything else they can get their hands on. . . . Steve the Tramp is a lout who would just as soon take your life as your wallet. Despite a low I.Q., he's as dangerous as they come because he doesn't have anything to lose."
It was the descriptions on the package that led Kay-Bee to pull the toy.
Kay-Bee's advertising vice president Kenneth Cunniff made the announcement over the weekend, telling reporters: "This was the first time I read it. . . . And I was offended. . . . We do have a social conscience here."
Kay-Bee's move is having little impact and is not being followed by other chains, according to a Disney official.
A prepared statement from Disney said Steve was "not intended in any way to represent the homeless."
"Steve the Tramp has been in the Dick Tracy stable of characters since the 1930s, and really is meant to reflect that era," said Chuck Champlin, a Disney spokesman.
The character is loosely based on Fagin in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," the seedy man who sends children out to "pick a pocket or two." In the 1990 movie "Dick Tracy," Tracy vanquishes Steve and helps a homeless child, Champlin said.
Disney will probably order changes in the writing on the package in future editions, Champlin said.
The word of Kay-Bee's policy hadn't reached all its local stores Tuesday. While the Kay-Bee store in the Eastern Hills Mall pulled the dolls Monday, Steve the Tramp was still on sale Tuesday morning at the Kay-Bee store in the Main Place Mall. Workers in the store said they didn't know about the store policy.
Other toy chains continue to sell Steve the Tramp.
The Toys R Us on McKinley Parkway in Hamburg still had the toy on sale Tuesday. K & K Toys in the Walden Galleria was sold out of the entire line of Dick Tracy characters, which includes Steve the Tramp, 11 other villains, Dick Tracy and Tracy's sidekick Sam Catchem.
Playland Toys in the McKinley Mall also was sold out of Steve the Tramp. None of the stores reported customers complaining about the doll.
"We're trying to teach our children values, and we can't do it if the homeless are portrayed in such a way," said Michael Maloney, case manager with a local demonstration employment project for homeless people.
"When you make poor people and transients a negative stereotype, you forget they're people," said Michael Szymanski, acting director of Friends of Night People. "You're taking away the flesh and blood and faces from the cases.
"We're all a few paychecks away from being homeless. We could be Steve the Tramp."