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 concerned neighbors from the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association say that coordinated programs like the much-heralded Project Homeless Connect are humane and compassionate, but that they miss the point when it comes to dealing with street kids. "That gives them whatever services they need in one place — dental, medical, clothes, and hygiene supplies, whatever," says the association's Richard Shadoian. "And then it's out the door and 'Have a nice day!' Well, they won't have a nice day. And if they're under 18, they shouldn't be allowed to walk out the door."

Shadoian and others in the Improvement Association say that San Francisco should adopt a zero-tolerance approach to homeless kids — for their own good. "They need to be cared for, but we as a society haven't made that commitment," he says.

Providers from Larkin Street Youth Services and the Homeless Youth Alliance say the city doesn't have the capacity to scoop up and take care of all the homeless young people in the area. As long as the Haight is seen as a welcoming place, they say, new kids will keep arriving.

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.

"A lot of them are seeking refuge, seeking safety, because they come from someplace that is not safe," says Sherilyn Adams of Larkin Street. "They see this as a place of refuge and tolerance — and that is the beauty of this city."

Since the Summer of Love, the question has been how San Francisco can best parent the troubled or aimless kids drawn here, those who end up on the sidewalk of Haight Street, not sure what to do next. It's somewhat amazing that, almost 40 years later, no one has a clear answer or strategy. The outreach workers want more resources — more detox programs, more shelter beds, more education programs — so that they can hold out more options to the kids and say, Here, pick a new life when you're ready. The concerned neighbors want harsher methods and consequences that will force kids to grow up on cue.

Many of the kids who sleep in the park and who party in tight-knit groups aren't hearing either perspective. Adults in offices seem a long way away, and the messages that come from their peers seem louder and more urgent. Those messages are: We'll take care of each other. We'll value you for who you are, not what you have. Have another beer, and don't worry about where you're heading.

The hill is hemmed in by dark and fog, and the streetlights glow dully in the distance. People start to drift away. "Hey, party at the circle benches," says one guy, moving off toward the Panhandle.

"OK, family, stay warm!" says the maternal hippie, bestower of cheeseburgers and beers.

Lilac shoulders his backpack and walks to the park entrance at Stanyan Street, where a bunch of kids hang out, smoking cigarettes. A tall guy with a messy mop of half-bleached hair lunges toward him. "Why don't you get a job!" he yells.

Lilac turns. "Why, you got 'work'? I'm looking for Ôwork,'" he says, in the quiet voice he reserves for conversations about illegal substances.

"Nah, dude, I'm just joking. I got this suit at the thrift store for 10 bucks!" He's sporting a black, wide-shouldered jacket with a double row of buttons, and black pants. He's got what looks like a handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket; a second glance reveals it to be an orange sock with the heel poking up. In that attire, he could be mistaken for an eccentric dot-com millionaire.

"Yeah," he says, "or I could just be a homeless guy in a suit." He laughs. "But I wouldn't mind being a millionaire someday," he says, "I'd give everybody free drugs. And I'd buy a whole bunch of buses, like 20, 30 buses, and I'd fill them full of the family. ... I'd like to bring the buses to D.C. and buy a thousand megaphones, and give them to all the home bums. So D.C. would be full of home bums with megaphones." He smiles while he imagines the scene, how the comfortable people in charge would suddenly find out what life was like for the kids they pity, ignore, or sneer at. "That would be quite a new slice of reality, wouldn't it?"

Lilac isn't listening. The good cheer that has sustained him all evening seems to be draining away; most likely the chemistry in his body is shifting into less pleasant configurations.

"Fuck all that," he says. "Let's go get another beer."

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