44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
Although Steven's worldly possessions fit into the large camping backpack he carries with him 24 hours a day, and even though he's been living on Haight less than nine months — broken by a jaunt to Eugene, Ore., where he found it "too rainy" to join the town's expansive street kid community — he doesn't plan on being homeless forever. It's just that nothing about this economic climate inspires him to sell his freedom for a paycheck. He plans to go to a four-year college eventually. He sees an education as the only way to get a "real" job. "But until then, why not do this?" he asks. I'm not sure if he's waiting for my answer.
"This" is sit on Haight Street and "spange," the term used for "flying a sign" and asking shoppers and neighbors walking by for money, often in a creative way. Of the many crimes street kids are guilty of in the eyes of supporters, spanging is the only one Prop. L would effect.
If Francisco voters approve it, anyone who sits or reclines on the sidewalk (with exceptions for the handicapped and those with permits — but not for the tired, workers on breaks, or people waiting for buses) will be subject to a fine of $50 to $100 for the first offense and $300 to $500, or a maximum of 10 days in jail, for someone found guilty twice within 24 hours of unduly supporting his or her body on the sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Similar laws can be found up and down the West Coast — although Portland's was pulled from the books last year after being found unconstitutional because it targeted the homeless.
I ask street kid after street kid why they've chosen this lifestyle. Many wouldn't have it any other way. "Why do people want us off the street?" says Oz, a 21 year old from upstate New York who deals alongside Steven. "Probably because they can't do this themselves."
Though I'm skeptical at first, after a while I see why the unconventional group of "travelers" on Haight choose to spend their time spanging. Conversations get struck up with the most unusual people — the old hippie who bought a new Mad Hatter cap for the weekend, the suburban woman who might or might not like to buy some weed (she can't decide). When a few businesses ask us to move so they can sweep the sidewalk or clear a doorway, the street kids I'm watching relocate with little protest. Many who walk past Steven seemed to find humor in his sign, which that day reads "Are you one paycheck away from having this be your job too?" He says he likes to switch his message daily. "Keep it fresh."
By hanging out with the spangers, I get to see a Haight Street with human interaction at its core. People walk by, often dropping off surprisingly generous gifts: a ex-Grateful Dead roadie with a massive beard who lives in Fairfax and stopped by the neighborhood for a quick lunch with his daughter parks in front of Steven's group and approaches them. "You kids hungry? You look like you could use a pizza."
He emerges a half-hour later with a large cheese pie and drives away after chatting for a few minutes about the old days, to the glee of the group (many of the street kids are Dead Heads). The kids eat their fill, then start handing out the remaining pizza to people walking by, a comic role reversal. "I like to support the community — they get back all the money they get sucked out of them," Steven tells me.
"NARCOTIC FUELED, ANTISOCIAL THUGS"
The campaign to put a sit-lie ordinance into effect in San Francisco kicked into gear with a Saturday morning stroll. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius — who regularly publicizes complaints against the Haight street kid culture — reported Feb. 27, Mayor Gavin Newsom recently relocated to the neighborhood and saw evidence of drug use on the main stretch of Haight where he was walking with his infant daughter. "As God as my witness, there's a guy on the sidewalk smoking crack," Newsom reportedly said.