44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
Even the most well-known recent case of Haight Street violence — which was reported June 11 by New York Times reporter Scott James as having "inspired a grass roots movement" that propelled Prop. L, seems to be a question of mutual aggression on the two sides of the street kids issue.
The story goes that a man named Thomas was hosing down the sidewalk in front of his house — a practice that is growing more common in the Haight to make property inhospitable to the homeless. He found himself "surrounded and engaged in a heated confrontation," as James reports. Thomas reportedly shouted "Do you want a piece of me?" and a scuffle erupted between him and Chad Potter, a 26-year old homeless man, culminating with Potter being arrested and set free the next day. Thomas says Potter and friends continued to harass him after the incident.
James Orr, 24, is busking with his flute when I meet him sitting by a store that sells flowing hippie skirts and bumper stickers that command future tailgaters to "Coexist." He's looking to trade his wind instrument for a banjo, which he plays in addition to guitar. A rolling stone, Orr is in town for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival that weekend — he travels the country going to festivals, and even scored a job recently at upstate New York's Mountain Jam for the event's blog site, taking photos with a borrowed camera of performances by (ex-member of The Band) Levon Helm and Michael Franti.
Orr's quite erudite and eager to "say something articulate" about the situation of the street kids and travelers on Haight. He tells me that yeah, he's seen aggression go down here on occasion. But he resents those situations leading to laws against sitting on the street.
"It's another example of the few that do mess up casting a bad light on everyone else. Most of us just want to make some money, put a smile on someone's face." As a busker, he finds it baffling that people who are against the presence of the homeless would want him to stop plying his trade by making sitting illegal. "You should point out also that it's how we make money!" he exclaims.
THE PIT BULLS
Snarling ruffians on frayed rope leashes stalking the city streets! As evidenced by the Civil Sidewalks campaign, dogs — specifically pit bulls — are another source of controversy on the pavement. Last December, SFist identified a C.W. Nevius tirade against the breed as example of its ongoing feature "Pit Bull Hate Watch." The paper has pointed out that the demonized dogs can make great members of society and are often the subject of a media smear campaign.
But for many homeless youth, their dogs aren't the means of imposing chaos on the gentry. They keep them for the same reasons we do: friendship, protection, love — and during the days I spent on Haight, it was a pleasure to pat the doggies while interviewing their owners. Most were as gentle and laid back as the kids they sprawled next to, a reasonably expected result from the 24 hours a day of socialization with humans that the homeless lifestyle affords.
Smiley is an inveterate street kid unlikely to go indoors anytime soon. "I don't know how to do anything else," she tells me. Now in her early 20s with a shock of magenta, purple, and dirty blonde hair and fanciful purple ear plugs that pierce her lobes before spiraling nearly to her shoulders, she's been traveling since she was 12 — "a Bohemian by blood," as she puts it. Not only did her parents move their household regularly throughout her childhood, but their heritage is Romani, from the traveling tribes of Eastern Europe.
For Smiley, travel outside the bounds of business trips and weekend vacations is her life's norm, and Haight Street's legacy resounds in her nomadic soul. "Most of the people that travelers idolize were here," she tells me.