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

Back on Hippie Hill, someone spots the police car, and the beers disappear up sleeves and down pants. It cruises by along the paved path, real slow, then pulls to a stop by the opera stage, where its driver kills the lights. After it has been there for 10 minutes or so, people begin to take hesitant sips again.

With one eye on the cop car, Lilac tells the tale of his bust — the one that got him six months in an Iowa prison about three years ago. When he was 19, he and his father were selling weed out of their house in Clinton, Iowa, a town on the border of Illinois. One of their clients was the 16-year-old kid next door, who came over regularly to pick up a bag, sometimes with money he said he'd gotten from his mother. When the kid got busted for stealing, the Clinton cops convinced him to wear a wire into Lilac's house on two drug runs. The police were putting the finishing touches on their case when Lilac and his dad left town, unaware that they had barely eluded the law's grasp.

Six years later, the story goes, the police caught Lilac selling pot in California and extradited him to Iowa, threatening him with 60 years for two counts of selling to a minor. But they had trouble with their witness, the buyer, who had grown from a 16-year-old kid into a 22-year-old criminal, and who gave a vague deposition by phone from prison. Finally, the district attorney offered a deal of six months, Lilac says, and he took it.

When he got to prison, Lilac continues, he found that he was a minor celebrity. During the six years that the warrant had been active, the Clinton public access TV channel had been flashing an old mug shot of Lilac during its segment on wanted criminals. "Mine was the longest running in Clinton, Iowa," he says proudly. "When I finally got to jail, guys were like, 'That was youon TV? That picture looks nothing like you!'"

A little while after the cop car makes its appearance at Sharon Meadow, a man walks by on the hill, looking around. Lilac is immediately focused on him. "Who's that guy?" he mutters. Soon the man is back, and in a blue fleece, baseball hat, and sunglasses he could be any sort of fellow — including, very possibly, a narc. He plops down on the grass and asks Lilac if he's got any pot. Lilac demurs.

"What, you think I'm a cop?"

Lilac denies that, too.

"Why else would you say no?" asks the presumed narc.

"Maybe because I don't have any ... or because I don't sell weed," says Lilac, covering all his bases.

The guy seems offended, and walks off in a huff. Lilac looks around. "Anybody else want to sell a 20 to that guy?" Nobody does.

Park Station's police officers are fighting a war of containment. On several recent evenings at dusk, they've walked the length of Haight Street, telling kids to move along and get off the street. A plain-clothes cop typically makes six arrests in an hour's worth of trolling for drug dealers, according to the station's regular newsletters. There's been a recent uptick in late-night sweeps in Golden Gate Park, during which the officers give sleepers tickets for camping and pick up anybody who's got a warrant out for his arrest. None of it makes any difference, says Lt. Gary Jimenez, who has served as acting captain of Park Station for the past two months.

"We've been beating our heads against the wall," he says. "It won't do any good, and it is very frustrating, but it's our job, and we'll continue to do it."

Run-ins with the cops are considered a routine hassle by most street kids, who say it's not unusual to get one ticket per week. According to San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, about 10,000 tickets for "quality of life" crimes are issued each year to homeless people in the city, for offenses like obstructing the sidewalk, camping, and drinking and urinating in public. The Coalition deals with as many of these tickets as it can; the group has a network of pro bono attorneys who will go to traffic court on behalf of the homeless, who then don't have to appear. In fact, this procedure was in the news a few weeks ago, when the group Religious Witness With Homeless People released a study declaring the method of ticketing homeless people a waste of time and money: The group says that 80 percent of the charges are dismissed in traffic court, and claims that the whole process has cost the city $5.7 million in the past 30 months.

Elisa Della-Piana is the lawyer with the Coalition on Homelessness who distributes the citations to pro bono attorneys. "The citations that we represent people for are punishing homeless people for their homeless status," she says. "Those criminal citations actually harm homeless people's chance of getting off the street. They can't afford to pay the fine, so it goes to an arrest warrant. An active warrant makes you ineligible for treatment programs, jobs, housing programs, all sorts of services. In terms of solutions, giving homeless people citations that they can't afford to pay is not the answer."

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