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

The police and the disgruntled residents of the Haight agree that this process is a waste of time and money, but for a different reason: Dismissing all those citations, they say, means the homeless aren't being held accountable for their actions. As a first step toward remedying the situation, Lt. Jimenez has suggested a technique called "Court Watch," based on a similar project he saw when he worked in the Mission District; a handful of Haight residents is organizing to follow that example.

"I think the citizens are going to have to take back the city," Jimenez says at a recent community meeting at the police station. He explains the Court Watch concept: Concerned neighbors will keep track of citations given to homeless people in the area through contacts in the police department and the district attorney's office, and will attend traffic court when those citations are adjudicated. The residents will try to get the message to the judge that the community doesn't want the citations dismissed, perhaps by talking to the police officers who attend to testify about the circumstances of the citation — or, if possible, by talking to the judge directly in his or her chambers.

"We need to get the message across that if a person commits a crime, there will be consequences," says Jimenez. "If there's no sanctions, if there's no consequences, these actions will continue."

Cheryl Brodie, of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, wants to get kids off the street for their own good.
Cheryl Brodie, of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, wants to get kids off the street for their own good.
One drop-in center on Haight Street helped 945 homeless young people last year.
One drop-in center on Haight Street helped 945 homeless young people last year.

But instead of a fine, they'd ask the judge to impose a sentence of community service. Cheryl Brodie of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association has gotten neighborhood and merchant groups to sign a resolution supporting the community service idea, and has passed it on to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. The resolution urges the traffic court to adopt a policy of community service sentences for all quality-of-life crimes. "It shouldn't be punitive," Brodie says, "but we still need consequences and accountability. It would show these kids that they're not invisible, that people care about their actions and notice them." She feels that a morning of community service could be a first step toward turning street kids into participatory citizens. "It could reengage them in the community," she says hopefully.

Among the cluster of people of all ages on Hippie Hill who call themselves and each other "kids," there's one honest-to-God child, on a blanket with his young mother and two men. He looks to be 5 or 6 years old, a redhead in jeans and grungy sneakers, eating a cheeseburger. He plays with a small tree branch, tussles with one of the dogs, and accidentally knocks over a bottle of beer. Although the bottle has a cap on it, the two men act angry. Then they pretend to beat the boy up. With a scream, one guy mimes a punch to the child's stomach that stops just short. The other grabs the branch and mimics cracking it over the child's head. The boy rolls over onto his stomach, and one of the men jumps onto his back, pretending to pummel him on the sides.

The noises coming from the child don't sound like laughter. When the guy gets up and the child rolls over, the little one is scared and crying. He flings his arms around the neck of his pretend attacker. "Hey, what?" says the man, apparently surprised. "You're OK. You're fine!"

No one talks about the immediate future — like where to sleep tonight. People don't bring up the distant past — like where they came from and what made them leave. Instead they talk about concerts: a three-day Widespread Panic show a while back that was killer. Jazz Fest in New Orleans this past spring. The Rainbow Family Gathering in Colorado in July. The Power to the Peaceful Festival the day before in Golden Gate Park, with Michael Franti and Spearhead.

A guy who'd been playing guitar has stopped, but the group still wants music. "Anybody got speakers?" someone asks. Lilac has some stashed in his bag, but says they're not great. "Are they louder than the speakers on my laptop?" the guy asks. Lilac digs the small, white speakers out of the bag for the test.

"Hey, whatcha got? Is that a ThinkPad?" asks Lilac. "I've got a Dell, with Windows XP 95." He pulls a smudged silver laptop out of his backpack, and the two compare features and operating systems for a few minutes. The laptop is Lilac's prize possession. "I got it from a frat house in Austin!" he crows. "I went in to steal some beer, but it was just lying there, so I yanked it."

Just as with begging for change, he has a code about stealing, he claims: He doesn't steal from his friends or from anybody he's met — "even if it's just for a minute"; he doesn't steal from other kids' backpacks; and he doesn't steal from people who look like they can't afford it. But if something is just lying out, more or less asking to be stolen (as he sees it), and he doesn't know who owns it — then it's fair game.

Most of these kids are such a bundle of societal problems that it's hard for outreach workers to know what to address first. They're thieves, scroungers, drug users and sellers; they've got hacking coughs and who knows what else. The service providers keep working doggedly, trying to save one kid at a time. Meanwhile, this spring, Mayor Gavin Newsom convened a task force on "Transitional Youth" that will focus partly on street kids ages 16 to 24. The task force is still in its first phase — brainstorming strategies and policy ideas — with members discussing how services could better be coordinated to coax homeless young people off the street into functional, successful adulthood.

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