By Erin Sherbert
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"Here's to you, Jimmy," says a thick-set man, pouring a draught into the grass. That would be James "Jimmy the Scumfuck" Nelson, a 33-year-old man who died in the park in August, reportedly of a heroin overdose. He wasn't even a heroin user, according to his friends and to outreach workers; they say that one night he got too drunk, and someone convinced him to try it. Now there's a posterboard memorial in the Homeless Youth Alliance office.
The cold fog is descending. For a while it has been caught in the treetops, but now wisps are rolling across the meadow below us. Soon it has nearly obscured the stage on which the opera singers performed. "Man, I wish I was tripping," says someone. "This fog would look great."
There are pictures of this hill from the '60s, when it was covered with thousands of flower children happily tripping. A fellow named Wilhelm Joerres held office hours on the hill in 1967 while running for mayor: He promised, if elected, to spend his first week in City Hall in the nude. Back then, people ditched their expected lives like a pair of pressed slacks and came to the Haight to be part of something big. Many members of the community met these new arrivals with open arms the hippie philanthropists known as the Diggers held a free daily feed at the Panhandle, and there was always somewhere to crash. Today, kids sleep on stoops, and doors don't open to them. The nonprofit groups that serve the area's transient population are under siege from frustrated neighbors. And the party on the hill has dwindled to 20 people eating McDonald's cheeseburgers.
Much of the free-floating anger and frustration in the Haight eventually settles on the Homeless Youth Alliance, which shares a storefront on the corner of Haight and Cole with the San Francisco Needle Exchange. The Alliance had a different name and was part of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic until July; the clinic had become entwined in a tangle of lawsuits with its founder, Dr. David Smith, and decided to move some of its operations to the Mission District. Mary Howe, the director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, wants to stay behind to serve the kids in the Haight, so she's now scouting for a different location. Young people come by for the Alliance's drop-in hours three times a week to get a snack, sleep on couches, and check e-mail. Several kids squatting on the sidewalk outside after a drop-in session say the staff members often seem more like friends than counselors.
In Howe's current office, a sticker plastered to a filing cabinet reads, "Shoot clean, fuck safe." The Alliance hews to a "harm reduction" strategy, which takes for granted that kids on the street will engage in dangerous behaviors: They'll use and sell drugs, and the girls might have sex for money. With that in mind, the organization offers overdose prevention classes, tips for smoking crack, advice on safe prostitution, and other street survival tactics. Staff members are also eager to help young homeless people get off the street, but they don't expect that to happen right away.
"We try to meet the kids where they are," says Howe. "What we do is let the kids set their own goals, and then help them reach them. We don't force an agenda on them. If they want to get off the street or into a drug program, great. But a lot of them aren't ready."
A few blocks down Haight Street is another drop-in and referral center, this one run by Larkin Street Youth Services. Several kids who frequent the Alliance's office say the Larkin Street site has a heavier atmosphere, and characterize its staff members as well-meaning authority figures.
That's the point of Larkin Street, explains Sherilyn Adams, the organization's executive director. "Most of the young people that we work with are living on the street through no fault of their own," she says. "They're leaving unsafe homes and unsafe environments, and often they've been exposed to some kind of abuse. Establishing trust is a huge issue. They need to establish trust with a safe, dependable adult. Then we start the conversations about whether they're satisfied with their lives, what else they'd like to have happen."
Disgruntled neighbors the ones who flood neighborhood e-mail lists with their complaints think the service providers should take further steps toward personifying a tough-love parent. In fact, today's conversation parallels those that took place 40 years ago, when the country collectively freaked out about runaways beating a path to the Haight Ashbury. A 1967 Time article that's now legendary for its squareness put it this way: "To their deeply worried parents throughout the country, [the hippies] seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics if only they would return home to receive either."
Yet for all the alarmism of the summer of 1967, the tumult in the Haight was already dying down six months later. In the fall of 1967, a crowd gathered for the "Death of Hippie" event, in which hippie leaders marched a coffin up Haight Street to Golden Gate Park, where they held a mock funeral service. Local luminaries closed up shop and ended their experiments in urban psychedelic living, many moving to Marin County or more rural areas. The street kids gradually returned to school, got jobs, took up new causes, and reentered a slightly altered capitalist whirl. By 1970, what was left in the Haight was a dirty remnant of a dream.