I've been hanging out with the Haight Street kids. Over the course of a week or so, I smoked weed, drank malt liquor, witnessed nasty run-ins with police officers — all events that anyone who has walked down the sidewalks of that legendary street would expect. But I also met people who'd give away their last dollar to a friend, people who know a thing or two about community, and people who don't see sidewalks only as thoroughfares to commerce.
Ironically, though the homeless kids on Haight are the explicit inspiration for Proposition L, the sit-lie measure on the Nov. 2 ballot, their voices have been significantly absent from the vitriolic debate on its merits and faults. Ironic because of all people, it's these young men and women — and the citizens of San Francisco who interact humanely with them — who could teach us the most about what public space in San Francisco could be.
I didn't just stand with a notebook, fire questions, and walk away. I took a seat and spent time with the kids, to see for myself whether its true that they're harassing people, letting their dogs run amok, and generally ruining everyone's lives as much as sit-lie supporters say they are. That it turned out to be uplifting was an added bonus. I got to see what many don't on their way to shop for souvenir bongs, retro dresses, and designer skateboards — the reason young people from around the country come to the neighborhood.
It doesn't have anything to do with fancy Victorians and boutiques, which may explain the disconnect between the street kids and their detractors. They come for the legacy of individuals brave enough to slough off social mores that Haight-Ashbury residents are so ostensibly proud of — not to mention the companionship of others who are comfortable with their rejection of and by society. They come to share stories and pipes and encouragement, and it was cool to watch a streetscape in San Francisco that wasn't geared solely to commerce.
And while the young people I talked to told me how much they liked to travel, to live free of convention and without ties to the workday world, after a while most acknowledged that they had left behind families who couldn't or didn't care for them, home situations that were uncomfortable enough to make life on the streets seem like a better alternative.
Although violent incidents, uncivil behavior, and threatening dogs are well-documented by other news sources, I didn't see any of that when I was hanging out on Haight. That doesn't mean that these things don't exist -- but it might suggest that some of the strident supporters of Prop. L are seeing what they want to see.
Steven, who asked us not to use his full name, is 20 and homeless. He grew up in Stockton, became a welder after high school, then decided he "didn't want the hassle" of staying put for a wage job. His fingernails play host to an ungodly amount of dirt, but his tight blonde curls, pretty golden eyes ("they look like a lion's!" says one friend in amazement) and mellow, generous demeanor make him a popular hub among his homeless peers.
It doesn't hurt that he sells weed, small amounts at a time to passing tourists and acquaintances. He silently passes a pipe around to his companions with the slightest provocation. Steven approached me on the street before he knew I was a journalist, a fact that seemed to make little difference to him.
He says he came to the Haight "for the people," for the area's reputation of open souls and unconventional artists that originated in the glory days of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Like most of the kids I talked to, he eschewed the often dangerous shelter scene to sleep in Golden Gate Park or nearby Buena Vista Park despite the police surveillance that could result in spendy fines for park camping.