By Skyler Swezy
The Haight-Ashbury is out-of-control, according to some recent news reports and testimony by cops and other backers of the proposed sit-lie ordinance. They report street toughs brazenly smoking crack, blocking sidewalks, spitting on babies, and intimidating citizens with pit bulls.
As this story goes, dangerous thugs have replaced harmless beggars. They’ve gone from annoying to menacing, a change police say they’re helpless to address without legislation banning sitting or lying on sidewalks, which Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief George Gascón introduced March 1.
Proponents and opponents have attended City Hall meetings and voiced their arguments in the media. The police, homeless rights advocates, Haight Street business owners, residents, Newsom, and columnists have spoken their piece. But what do the street kids, who haven’t been heard from in this debate, have to say for themselves?
So on March 19, I spent the day walking the Haight to get the perspective from the street, asking kids what they think is going on?
It’s 3 p.m. and I’m standing on the southwest corner of Central and Haight streets next to a Bob Marley mural painted on the side of a liquor store. A cop car cruises by. With no thugs or panhandlers in sight, I head toward Golden Gate Park along the south side of the street.
On the corner of Masonic and Haight, there are some well-kept teens perched against the wall of X-Generation. Clutching shopping bags, they are not panhandlers, but they sit on the ground because Haight Street doesn’t have benches, except for one on Stanyan facing the park.
These kids clearly aren’t the targets of this ordinance, so I move on to the notorious Haight-Asbury intersection, which is also devoid of vagabonds. An old woman and young boy, both well-dressed, squat in front of Haight Asbury Vintage, watching shoppers pass by.
Almost at the end of the block, outside a closed storefront, a scruffy young man is perched on a back pack holding a battered piece of cardboard that reads “SMILES/HAVE A NICE DAY!? OR NIGHT.”
“You have a beautiful smile,” he croons to passersby. Most stare straight ahead, some smile without making eye contact; a woman in her 30s asks to take his picture. Jay is 18, has a scarce beard and crust in the corners of his sleepy pale blue eyes. He is from Ohio and says he has been bumming on Haight and sleeping in the park for about three months. He hitchhiked to San Francisco because his sister is “a back-stabbing crack head, so I left.”
He doesn’t think panhandling has become more aggressive recently, but that business owners “just want to be asses.” He’s not much of a talker and more interested in smiles, so I leave Jay to his work.
On the next block I meet Kevin Geoppo, 31, cupping a handful of coinage, sitting on the window ledge of a storefront under renovation. Kevin says he’s a heroin addict who grew up in Orlando, Fla., and made his way to San Francisco years ago. He’s obtained an SRO and primary care doctor, but can’t get a job.
He sees both sides of the sit/lie law debate. “Those who sit and lie do cause a lot trouble, stir up energy that isn’t needed to [hurt] tourism, and [threaten] violence, so I can understand why this is being talked about,” he says.
At the same time, he is wary of how the police would use the law and at whom it would be directed. He doesn’t think things are getting worse, but he says the panhandling and menacing attitudes of some kids ebb and flow as different groups pass through the city.
“A lot of these yuppie, rich, bureaucrat people are trying to clean up everything because if you take a left or a right anywhere off Haight Street, it’s rich people living in those houses,” he says. I let him get back to business and proceed down the street.
I decide to drop into Aub Zam Zam cocktail lounge for a veteran bartender’s opinion. Owner Bob Harpe is behind the horseshoe bar, slicing limes and chatting with long-time Haight resident Paul Zmudzinski.
Harpe doesn’t have problems with aggressive or congregating street kids. “If you ask them to move and treat them with a general level of respect, they go on their way.”
He believes the rising number of homeowners in the neighborhood and businesses catering to a more affluent clientele are behind the recent uproar. “The rents on Haight Street have escalated dramatically, so boutique owners have to pump up their prices. Then you get more affluent shoppers who are turned off by the skuzzy-looking street kids coming through,” Harpe says. “The whole thing is kind of disgusting.”
Back outside, I head to the next block and come across Kasper who is “flying a sign” that reads “SEX!!! NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, SPARE ANY $$$?”
He is a 33-year-old traveler who just landed back on Haight, having spent the last three weeks in Berkeley. He’s headed north to a 420 Rainbow gathering and then to Idaho for work. With combat boots, Army pants, and a neck tattoo, he’s a tough-looking guy with a soft-spoken voice.
“They don’t understand all the money they’ll lose. We panhandle money in the street and then spend it in the stores here,” Kasper says. “Those liquor stores rely on street people.”
He says many tourists come to the Haight to see people playing guitars, banging drums, and selling their hemp trinkets. And when it comes to instances of violence or aggressiveness, those are limited to a few of the community and could happen anywhere, regardless of a sit-lie law.
“These things are heavy,” he says nodding to his backpack. “To have to stand, hold your straps, and fly a sign to get something to eat is just ridiculous.”
McDonalds is the last establishment before Golden Gate Park, which serves as a three-mile squatter haven stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Beneath the golden arches, three guys are singing an improvised McDonalds song, but two busted guitar strings kills their burger ballad hustle.
The three agree to an interview and form a semicircle on the sidewalk. Stoney, 19, the guitar player, is wearing sunglasses, a backwards cap, and is heavily scarred on his arms and neck. “Are you against weed?” he asks, before hitting a pipe carved from a deer antler.
Angelo, 23, is a self-dubbed vagabond originally from Virginia. He just got out of jail for selling weed to a cop in the Tenderloin. Nick, 18, wears a mighty Afro and says almost nothing.
Two bike cops zip up and tell us to move it. “You’re blocking the sidewalk,” one cop says. Everyone stands up. “It’s not illegal yet, dude!” Stoney yells back toward the cops as we cross Stanyan to enter the park.
Stoney and Angelo agree with each other that lawmakers are focusing on the bad actions of a few to push all street kids off Haight. “We have the right to use the sidewalk just like anyone else,” Angelo says. “It’s crazy, man. We’re all just fuckin’ a bunch of cells put together, floating around a ball of fire in space.”
The sit-lie ordinance could be considered by the Board of Supervisors next month. For details on a March 27 citywide protest of the measure, visit www.standagainstsitlie.org.