Whose Haight?

Street kids expect the neighborhood to welcome them as it did their forebears in the '60s, but residents, merchants, and cops are planning a different future

Apparently the kids haven't gotten the message about the area's transformation, because they keep coming. They still arrive in unregistered cars and beat-up vans, or they ride the freight trains to Oakland and hitchhike over the Bay Bridge. They still feel entitled to the Haight's street corners and to pieces of the park. Some, like Lilac, drift through when the weather's good, and take off again whenever an interesting opportunity presents itself. Others have been hanging out on Haight Street for years and think of this city as home, like the group of friends who call themselves the "San Francisco Scum Fucks" (they tattoo the "SFSF" logo onto their hands and shave it into their dogs' fur).

According to a recent survey conducted by Larkin Street Youth Services, there are about 4,000 homeless people under the age of 24 in the city — although that number is always changing, as people come and go. There are no firm statistics on how many live or stay for a while in the Haight, but Larkin Street's referral center on Haight Street helped 945 young people last year. Outreach workers say there are many more in the neighborhood who never ask for help.

The area's residents are tired of all of it. They're tired of the trash and the graffiti they believe is the result of transient inhabitants, tired of leading their children past clusters of homeless teenagers. In interviews, many of the local merchants claim the street kids have become more aggressive and impolite in their panhandling; regardless, they say, potential customers don't like getting hit up for change on every block. From the tattoo parlor on the corner of Central Avenue to the intellectual hub of the Booksmith in the heart of the neighborhood, store owners insist that because of the street kids people are less inclined to come to Haight Street for their shopping, and less inclined to linger there if they do.

The Haight has a grand tradition of welcoming drifters, says Calvin Welch of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council.
The Haight has a grand tradition of welcoming drifters, says Calvin Welch of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council.
Transients often come through San Francisco in the summer and fall, when the weather is nice.
Transients often come through San Francisco in the summer and fall, when the weather is nice.

Residents and merchants resurrected the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association in January. They're trying to convince cops and judges to be stricter with the street kids, and want the nonprofits that serve homeless youth to stop "enabling" the transient lifestyle.

Some of the restless residents and merchants recite stereotypical "not in my backyard" complaints. There's a faction that rejoices every time a service provider leaves the neighborhood, as when the Hamilton Family Emergency Center on Waller Street lost its lease this summer and moved to the Tenderloin. But other locals say it's not that they don't want services to help the area's young homeless; rather, they want effective services that make a dent in the number of kids on the street. They think it's time for the city to reassess its methods and strategies.

Richard Shadoian of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association has lived in the neighborhood since 1986. "We see 30-year-old hags on the street who we knew as 14-year-olds, and it breaks our hearts," he says.

Cheryl Brodie, the Improvement Association's president, moved to the Haight in 1984, attracted by its history and gritty charm. But she says that she's willing to sacrifice the neighborhood's '60s street cred if a less tolerant atmosphere will result in less homelessness. "There's something really disgusting about hanging onto a history that's killing people," she says. "I think that enabling people to destroy their lives is cruel. When kids under 18 are out there without a home, I think we're all culpable — and it needs to be addressed."

Lilac sits by the mud puddle known as Alvord Lake, a street-kid hangout that causes much community hand-wringing. Here the neighborhood's problems are visible and unavoidable. Young people sometimes pass out in the underbrush, and neighbors find hypodermic needles in the muck; it's a persistent reminder that San Francisco, for all its good intentions, hasn't yet figured out how to bring everyone into the fold.

Plenty of kids hang out here to beg for spare change, but Lilac says he rarely needs to panhandle — he makes plenty of money. He makes eye contact with the college kids walking by, trying to separate out the potential customers. He's got his digital scale, his Baggies, his whole operation in his backpack. When he does "sprange," he explains, he has an ethical code; he never asks old people for money, and he never asks people who have kids with them.

Lilac is still looking for customers when a homeless woman comes along in a long skirt, her breasts spilling out of a green peasant blouse and a bandana over her brown hair. The woman, who looks like she's in her 20s, has shiny star stickers plastered to her cheek — the kind that elementary school teachers put on test papers — and a radiant smile. She and a man are carrying a box between them. "Everybody follow me; we're having a party!" she sings out. "Free cheeseburgers and 40s! Follow me!"

She leads a small procession to Hippie Hill, just above where the opera finished performing a couple of hours before, and everyone flops down on the sloping grass. The woman calls out, "Who wants a cheeseburger?" and beams at the assembling kids. "We all got together and spare-changed and sold CDs," she explains, "and we made 92 bucks! That's what can happen when we all work together." They had set up at the Haight Street entrance to the park, she says, and hit up the opera crowd as the show let out. With the money, they bought a case of 40-ounce beers and a box of about 40 cheeseburgers.

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