44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: The kids on Haight Street aren't exactly like the stereotype you've been told about
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.
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.
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.
The mayor threw his support behind a sentiment already being voiced by the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, a resident-merchant alliance in the area. HAIA sees the street kids as disruptive outsiders. "These are not the flower children of the 1960s. It's narcotic fueled, antisocial thugs who act like a quasi-gang," Ted Loewenberg, president of the association, was quoted as saying in Business Week.
Adds the Prop L website: " ... the Haight-Ashbury district — once synonymous with peace and love — this corridor is now a hot spot for street bullies, pit bulls, and drug abuse." It's a deft cultural lobotomy that dissociates drugs from the Summer of Love, and a devious one that implies that street kids weren't major players in that social revolution.
As for the bullies, I didn't see any violence from the street kids in the days and nights I spent out on Haight Street.
I couldn't get cops to talk to me about it, either. There were two police officers on foot traversing Haight's main strip and I introduced myself when they stood chatting with a coffee shop owner in the afternoon sunshine and asked them about the sort of neighborhood complaints they regularly received about the street kids.
"No comment," Cop No. 1 told me. Okay, Cop No. 2, your thoughts? "I don't speak English."
To my requests that they share their view of crime on Haight, I could get one response: "It's complicated." Later, when I returned to write down their badge numbers, they were standing silently, staring at a lone young man sitting against a wall next to his skateboard. The kid was looking at the ground. Eventually they handcuffed him and put him in a police car while he pleaded meekly about it "only being a little bit of weed — and I was only skateboarding on the sidewalk."
The most aggression I witnessed from any party took place while I was tapping my feet to a group of traveling bluegrass musicians performing around 10 p.m. on a Thursday. Their cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway" had inspired an older homeless man to strike up a curiously graceful stomp dance on the sidewalk. He was so drunk and fully immersed in the music that the bottle of Jim Beam in his flailing hand didn't even register when the police officer approached him and asked, "What do you think you're doing?"
The musicians began to pack up. "I could have told you this would happen 20 minutes ago," one tells me, nodding toward the old man. "Don't say a word or I'll fucking take you in," said the cop, who poured out the half-full bottle and wrote a ticket for the older man, who had made a few feeble protests that ended abruptly with the cop's obscenity.
The officer said he'd received a complaint about the music, a line I heard from each cop I came into contact with on Haight — including one officer who cautioned a family with a toddler to pack up the bracelets they were selling to pay the towing charges on their van. "People don't like to see people with kids out here, you better move it along," the cop said.
"I've seen aggression because people start shit," Steven tells me when I ask him about his experience with street violence. A man has just walked by chanting "dirty, dirty" in Steven's and his friends' faces. "They don't like to see people sit on the ground."
"There are people who come down here just to make themselves look better," chimes in Oz. "Like 'ha ha ha, I have air conditioning.' All kinds of people start shit"
I asked if they knew they were the focus of a massive political debate in San Francisco. "No, what debate?" asked Steven.
"You mean sit-lie?" Oz asks. "It probably has to do with tourism. I don't see why else they would do that."
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.
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.
Smiley has a year-old behemoth black mutt with droopy eyes. He obliges her as she leans into him holding her spanging sign, which tells the world the pup needs Benadryl for an upcoming van ride to Southern California. "He's carsick," she tells me sheepishly. She admits that the dog can limit her mobility on public transportation, but his benefits outweigh his cost. He keeps her warm at night — and, more important for a young woman who is often on her own, he protects her. For a moment breaking out of tough girl mode, she tell me, "oh yeah, I don't have to worry about anything when he's around."
We talk about the perceived threat of dogs on Haight Street. "They want us to leash them, which I guess I understand — but look at that!" A well-dressed woman in her 40s has her Chihuahua off its leash and it has run into the busy street, with her in hot pursuit. "That dog's out of control," Smiley smiles.
Sitting against a mural on a wall where Haight meets Clayton, I watch Piss, an outgoing, gangly guy in his early 20s with a curly blonde mohawk in a growing-out stage. I ask him where he got his unusual moniker. "I like to get drunk and piss on things," he says.
Well. Originally from Billings, Mont., Piss has been traveling since his mid-teens. "Let's just say me and my family don't get along," he tells me.
His answers to my questions about why he's on the streets follow a path I see with many of the younger homeless youth: they insist that the lure of the open road was too hard to ignore, but eventually reveal that their parents kicked them out or were unable to care for them at a young age. Many, like Juju, another small-time weed dealer I met, bounced from family member to family member until frictions with them and their significant others left no recourse but the street.
Piss says he's been to every state in the country, plus Canada and Mexico. With so many years on the road, he is, as they say, letting his freak flag fly. Piss has a blue, vaguely tribal tattoo that curls around his right eye. He's wearing white tube socks on the dirty pavement. At first glance, he could be crazy — and maybe he is. Whatever his motivation for travel, it's not to blend in with the locals.
Piss is also actively spanging passersby in a manner that oscillates between off-putting and charming. "You got some money for some crack and ice cream?" he inquires of a passing trio of young women. They shake their head, but before they're gone completely he continues "I'm just kidding! I don't like ice cream! Hey miss, you have a nice ass ... day!"
Over the course of the hour that I watch him a stand up routine emerges. Beneath the grime, he's a charismatic kid with an enviable sense of comedic timing.
As he ranges up and down a 20-foot stretch of sidewalk, belly laughs are elicited from a few targets, dollars surfacing here and there. One man carrying an accordion and wearing an expensive-looking pair of leather Chaco sandals donates a handful of strawberries to Piss and to those of us acting as his entourage.
But Piss' play is a little rough — like a big puppy — and he's alienating the people who don't crack up over crack. A couple of people walk away quickly from his petitions shaking their heads over one of the zingers, their suspicions confirmed about those rowdy Haight Street kids.
He's not doing anything more than what young travelers do all over the world. Thousands of families bid see you later to young adults en route to Prague, Peru, and Perth each year, where they lug their dirty backpacks through the world's most wondrous towns.
Of course, these kids aren't sleeping in the public parks of Cuzco — but in countries with plenty of cheap travelers' hostels, you don't have to. And though international flights cost more than the van rides and freight train hops that brought in most of the Haight Street kids, backpackers abroad do the same things: take fewer showers and flaunt social norms — not because they want to cause a problem for the natives of the lands they pass through, but because they are young, and discovering themselves for the first time, and can't see much past that. Piss isn't being violent, but he has lost the language to deal with "normies" and he's seen as unpredictable to the not-traveling, not-disenfranchised around him. Which to those who see public space as a place that should be predictable, mean he's a threat.
The clash between the settled and transient in the Haight is not new. Indeed, it's what made the neighborhood famous. As far back as the mid-1960s, officials have been simultaneously fighting and publicizing the Haight's worldwide reputation as a traveler's meeting place, a place with a culture of loosened societal moorings and enlightenment through free love, drugs, and art.
Businesses claim that the omnipresent homeless drive away paying customers from Haight Street. It a curious claim in an area where the vagrant hippie culture made the place the tourist attraction it is today, and one that is belied by the entry of Whole Foods, which plans to open a branch this year at a lot at Haight and Stanyan vacant since 2006. When contrasted with the Tenderloin — another neighborhood with a visible street community — and its chronic problems attracting a grocery store, the Haight street kids' effect on local commerce doesn't seem to be all that grave.
They certainly aren't making the place any less desirable of a neighborhood to live in for the wealthy. Real estate website Trulia.com puts the median listing price for homes in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood at $962,264.
The Haight Street kids I spoke could all too easily see what sit-lie would mean for San Francisco. When you control public space, you control who is in public space — and they have no illusions about whether or not they're included in the perfect world of those who push the measure. If it's enacted, the subculture that made Haight famous — part of which still survives today in a different form — would be gone, leaving it sterile and safe for the head shops and clothing boutiques, an even less authentic version of the '60s love fest their patrons come to the street for. One wonders if a scrubbed-clean Haight is even what the residents and business owners who have thrown their lot behind sit-lie truly want, or if they've been duped into sit-lie's efficacy by the same forces that on a national level have convinced us that curtailing civil liberties will lead to freedom for the real Americans. It comes down to this: What do we want Haight Street to be? Do we want to capitalize and benefit from the accepting, messy, wildly creative legacy the 20th century endowed our streets, or do we want a clean, friendly, outdoor mall? The powers of homogenization and gentrification can demonize the little heathens on Haight Street all they want, but they've miscalculated if they think that they don't belong in San Francisco — after all, Haight created them, not the other way around.
Our 44th Anniversary Issue also includes stories by Sarah Phelan on SF's disadvantaged youth , Rebecca Bowe's look at ageing out of the foster care system , and Tim Redmond's editorial on the issues facing our rising generation