Some things seem strange even for San Francisco. The pedestrian double take was in full effect at the Haight Street curb where Bennett Austin fed the meter for his bed last Thursday. And it wasn't even Parking Day.
Austin hoped to create awareness about the homeless youth who wander, sleep, and hang out on Haight Street. The graduate school student set up a bed to demonstrate that the only safe space for the homeless to sleep in public are curb spots that they must pay for by the hour, joining the tradition of artists speaking out against sit-lie.
His campaign, “Keep the Meter Running,” spun from last year's sit-lie ordinance, which prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk or public spaces for more than three minutes at a time. Although this law is nominally meant to be enforced uniformly, it is widely understood that it targets the homeless.
Austin wanted to do something. “I wanted to put creative efforts to solutions,” he told the Guardian that day on Haight Street. He contacted the Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA), a youth-focused organization in the Haight-Asbury which provides food, clothing, showers, counseling, and mental health and medical services to the homeless. Within three weeks his idea was in action.
The project was also accepting donations for HYA’s HIV prevention program, whose funding was recently cut, reducing the organization's total funds by one-third. Mary Howe, founder and executive director for HYA, said she and her staff was very open to Austin’s advertising idea.
“It brings attention to the sit-lie law, which doesn’t solve the problem [of homelessness],” Howe said.
Austin said he understands that everyone’s circumstances are different and he is hoping his campaign can help people become more open-minded. He said he has received very few negative responses. The first six people to donate to the HYA, Austin said, were homeless youth themselves.
Because the parking spot is paid for and Austin moves the bed every two hours (to comply with San Francisco parking laws) everything he is doing is legal. “Keep the Meter Running,” is costing Austin $16 per day to advertise on a historic street. For him, it is the cheapest and easiest way.
“I’m reclaiming public space,” he added. “Because these kids are just as much a part of the Haight as the Haight is a part of them.”