“We've got enough bums here already.”
The four blue-uniformed police officers surround two young people lounging on Haight Street, in front of Amoeba Records. Two grimy backpacks lean against a garbage can. The officers ask for ID; Lilac, who came to San Francisco yesterday from Santa Cruz, says he doesn't have any. The officers bluster briefly about sending the pair back where they came from, but soon move on to patrol the rest of their Upper Haight beat. There's plenty to do today: All along Haight Street, from Buena Vista Park to the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, there are nearly as many street kids as tourists on the sidewalks.
Lilac — who won't give his real name — has long blond dreadlocks tangled up under a camouflage hat, a blond goatee, and startling blue eyes. He says he hasn't slept in three days, and he talks very quickly — sure signs of a speed binge. He has roamed the country since 1998, he says, and often comes to S.F. in the summer or fall, when the weather is nice enough to sleep in the park. Haight Street is his automatic destination: It's just understood, he says. Haight is where the street kids belong, where they've always come.
But this Sunday saw an influx of a different demographic. The “Opera in the Park” extravaganza brought an estimated 15,000 patrons of the arts to Sharon Meadow, just a short stroll from the park's Haight Street entrance. At 9 that morning, the street kids trekked out of the cold, foggy park, sleeping bags rolled onto their backs, walking just to get their blood moving. They passed enthusiastic opera-goers trekking in with thermoses of coffee and coolers full of fruit, sandwiches, and cheeses. The early audience members spread blankets and set out folding chairs and tables, well prepared for their six- or seven-hour stay outdoors. By late afternoon, they had all gone home.
“I heard some of the opera. I started playing tapes over it,” says Lilac. “I mean, I like opera. I'll listen to the symphony, or go to some Shakespeare in the Park, but I've got to be in the right mood. That's for when you're hanging out with a girl, drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers. Not when we're sitting around smoking bowls and trying to sell some bud. You know what I'm saying? Not when it's in my day-to-day. And this is our living space — Golden Gate Park is ours,” he goes on. “It would be like if someone walked into your house and started singing opera.”
There are a growing number of people who take issue with Lilac's claim of ownership. Fed-up Haight residents and merchants, not to mention the Park Station's police officers, say they have a different vision for the Haight; in theirs, the sidewalks aren't crowded with teenagers in hooded sweatshirts, hunched over scraps of cardboard. These dissenters have recently reconstituted an old organization, the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, to agitate for new policies to reduce the number of homeless young people they see every day.
Just in time for next year's 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the neighborhood has resurrected ancient arguments over who belongs in the Haight and what to do with the homeless young people who flock here. The Improvement Association's ideological foe is the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, which has been spearheaded for many years by Calvin Welch, a low-income housing advocate. “There is an enduring element in the neighborhood that is at war with its very nature,” Welch says. “[The Improvement Association] has picked up the old and enduring chestnut — that there are too many migratory young people. I've lived in this neighborhood since 1962, and this old chestnut has [been] around since the Summer of Love. Someone always had to say, 'There are too many young people hanging around with too much time on their hands; something has to be done.'”
The kids, the subject of all this debate, don't seem to want to be part of the conversation. They say they're proud to exist outside of society, living on ingenuity and generosity. Meanwhile, the Haight's aging residents look at them and see either dangerous misfits or damaged kids from broken homes. In an ironic full circle, the children of the '60s are now trying to show a new generation of kids the error of their free-spirited ways.
“We all experimented with drugs, we all had sex when we were told not to, we all hated the government and dodged the draft,” explains Richard Shadoian, an aggrieved neighbor and resident chair of the Improvement Association. “And we grew up.”
In an increasingly prosperous Haight, there's less room and less tolerance for the drifters, the dreamers, the derelicts, and the down-on-their-luck who have seen the neighborhood as a haven for four decades. These days, the area's beautiful Victorians sell for more than $1 million. Haight Street still has a few liquor stores and head shops, but it also boasts vintage fashion boutiques in which a pair of 40-year-old shoes can set you back $300. And the neighborhood's heart has shifted to Cole Street, where the gourmet cheese shops and upscale salons are far beyond the reach of anyone turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.
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). [page]
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.
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.
“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.
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. [page]
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 you on 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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. [page]
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.”