Street view

Young beggars on Haight Street discuss proposed sit-lie ordinance

A panhandler named Kasper said young travelers have always been fixtures on Haight Street

By Skyler Swezy

The Haight-Ashbury is out-of-control, according to some recent news reports and testimony by cops and other backers of the proposed sit-lie ordinance. They report street toughs brazenly smoking crack, blocking sidewalks, spitting on babies, and intimidating citizens with pit bulls.

As this story goes, dangerous thugs have replaced harmless beggars. They've gone from annoying to menacing, a change police say they're helpless to address without legislation banning sitting or lying on sidewalks, which Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief George Gascón introduced March 1.

Proponents and opponents have attended City Hall meetings and voiced their arguments in the media. The police, homeless rights advocates, Haight Street business owners, residents, Newsom, and columnists have spoken their piece. But what do the street kids, who haven't been heard from in this debate, have to say for themselves?

So on March 19, I spent the day walking the Haight to get the perspective from the street, asking kids what they think is going on?

It's 3 p.m. and I'm standing on the southwest corner of Central and Haight streets next to a Bob Marley mural painted on the side of a liquor store. A cop car cruises by. With no thugs or panhandlers in sight, I head toward Golden Gate Park along the south side of the street.

On the corner of Masonic and Haight, there are some well-kept teens perched against the wall of X-Generation. Clutching shopping bags, they are not panhandlers, but they sit on the ground because Haight Street doesn't have benches, except for one on Stanyan facing the park.

These kids clearly aren't the targets of this ordinance, so I move on to the notorious Haight-Asbury intersection, which is also devoid of vagabonds. An old woman and young boy, both well-dressed, squat in front of Haight Asbury Vintage, watching shoppers pass by.

Almost at the end of the block, outside a closed storefront, a scruffy young man is perched on a back pack holding a battered piece of cardboard that reads "SMILES/HAVE A NICE DAY!? OR NIGHT."

"You have a beautiful smile," he croons to passersby. Most stare straight ahead, some smile without making eye contact; a woman in her 30s asks to take his picture. Jay is 18, has a scarce beard and crust in the corners of his sleepy pale blue eyes. He is from Ohio and says he has been bumming on Haight and sleeping in the park for about three months. He hitchhiked to San Francisco because his sister is "a back-stabbing crack head, so I left."

He doesn't think panhandling has become more aggressive recently, but that business owners "just want to be asses." He's not much of a talker and more interested in smiles, so I leave Jay to his work.

On the next block I meet Kevin Geoppo, 31, cupping a handful of coinage, sitting on the window ledge of a storefront under renovation. Kevin says he's a heroin addict who grew up in Orlando, Fla., and made his way to San Francisco years ago. He's obtained an SRO and primary care doctor, but can't get a job.

He sees both sides of the sit/lie law debate. "Those who sit and lie do cause a lot trouble, stir up energy that isn't needed to [hurt] tourism, and [threaten] violence, so I can understand why this is being talked about," he says.

At the same time, he is wary of how the police would use the law and at whom it would be directed. He doesn't think things are getting worse, but he says the panhandling and menacing attitudes of some kids ebb and flow as different groups pass through the city.

"A lot of these yuppie, rich, bureaucrat people are trying to clean up everything because if you take a left or a right anywhere off Haight Street, it's rich people living in those houses," he says. I let him get back to business and proceed down the street.