Time sours the Haight’s love-in
From his second-floor apartment at the counterculture crossing of Haight and Ashbury streets, Arthur Evans watches a new generation of wayward youth invade his free-spirited neighborhood.
The former flower child was among the legions of idealistic wanderers who migrated here during the Vietnam War to “tune in, turn on and drop out.”
But Evans, who has lived at the same address for 34 years, says he has never seen anything like this crowd, who use his flower bed as a bathroom and sell pot outside his window.
They’re known as gutter punks, these homeless kids with dirty dreadlocks and nose rings, lime-green mohawks and orange spray-painted faces, who panhandle with cardboard signs that riff on their lifestyles. “Please Help Us Get Un-Sober,” one reads. Another: “Please Give Us Weed, Beer or Money.”
Sometimes aggressive, they block sidewalks as they strum guitars or bang on bongos. Gangs of them skateboard down the middle of Haight Street. Some throw used hypodermic needles into a nearby pond they call Hep-C Lake.
Evans, 64, says they should get help, clean up or go home.
“I used to be a hippie. I wore beads and grew my hair long,” he said. “But my generation had something these kids do not: a standard of civilized behavior.”
Panhandler Jonah Lawrence, 25, insists it is residents who need civilizing. “They say, ‘Get a job!’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘You got clothes for me? Or a place I can take a shower so I can look for work?’ It’s so bogus to tell me to get a job if I have nothing.”
In the 40 years since 1967’s Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury has remained a beacon for drifters, dreamers and dropouts. Most are drawn by the Haight’s reputation as a safe place to hang out, experiment with drugs and search for life’s direction.
They come expecting a warm welcome, but their presence has become increasingly divisive in the gentrifying neighborhood, where old-timers now rub shoulders with newcomers who are buying up the old Victorian houses for $2 million and more.
Empathetic residents say homeless kids deserve as much respect as those with roofs over their heads. “People suffer from compassion fatigue,” said Pam Brennan, owner of the Haight-Ashbury Flower Power Walking Tour. “If they’re fatigued, they should go take a nap so others can work to help these kids.”
But a lot of ex-hippies-turned-homeowners are weary of the youthful intruders. They want the Haight to adopt a more mature demeanor, just as they have.
Outreach services, they say, only draw more young people to the area. Many suggest sending the homeless to centers in other areas, including the inner-city Tenderloin district.
“I’m sick of stepping over gangs of kids, only to be told ‘Die, yuppie!’ A lot of us were flower children, but we grew up,” said Robert Shadoian, 58, a retired family therapist. “There are responsibilities in this world you have to meet. You can’t be drugged out 24/7 and expect the world to take care of you.”
It was easier not to ask for help here in the 1960s, when communal crash pads rented for $40 a month. Back then, a lot of the young new arrivals were middle-class. That’s changed too. Today, young people who spend their days in the Haight spend their nights in Golden Gate Park.
Many are blue-collar misfits fleeing broken homes, sexual abuse, parents with drug and alcohol problems. Some are addicted to crack, heroin and other hard drugs. Proud to live on society’s fringes, they rely on a tribal closeness for survival, resisting contact with outsiders.
Each morning, groups of sleepy-eyed young people trudge stiffly from their encampments, looking for food and coffee. Some spend the day at an area of Golden Gate Park known as Hippie Hill, where their nomadic forebears got stoned.
Others hit Haight Street, a stretch of head shops and hip clothing stores whose names are a reminder of the area’s heyday: the People’s Cafe, Pipe Dreams, Coffee for the People.
“I know people hate me. I can see it in their eyes. But they’re never going to get rid of junkies in the Haight,” said Steffon Haaby, 22, a former heroin addict who said he fled a troubled single-parent home in Spokane, Wash. “If I lived my life trying to please everybody, I would have stayed home with my mother.”
‘I was idealistic’
Sarah Thibault is a suburban outcast. She was raised in Colorado, where her father went to prison and her mother went on welfare when Sarah was 12.
The straight-A student began ditching school and doing drugs. One day, a boyfriend said, “Let’s go to Haight-Ashbury.”
“It sounded good. I was idealistic,” she said. “I believed the ‘60s attitude, when people were intentionally kind to each other.”
What she found when she arrived in 1999 was decidedly different. The only people who were kind to her were other homeless people.
For years, she bought and sold drugs, using so much heroin that her health began to fail.
She felt invisible. “When you’re a kid on the street, people don’t see you, they don’t acknowledge you,” she said. “The only connection you have is with other homeless kids. No matter how tired, hungry or lonely you are, people just pass you by.”
Now 25, Thibault works at the Homeless Youth Alliance, a storefront outreach center that offers a no-questions-asked refuge from the streets.
She greets drop-ins, some suffering from hacking coughs, others reeking from days without bathing. The street kids raid the center’s refrigerator like college students home on spring break. One recent day, a teen devoured a bowl of cereal with a Swiss Army knife spoon as others dozed on couches.
With her tattoos and pierced nose, Thibault looks like a regular -- which she once was.
When she got clean, she wanted to give something back to the place she says helped her get off the street. Her approach to clients: play the role of a friend, not counselor. “We don’t tell people to get a job,” she said. “But we offer them tools to do it.”
The center’s recent survey of 60 homeless youths found that six of 10 had no relationship with their families. Nearly two-thirds suffered mental health issues that included depression and “social anxiety.” Seven of 10 said they would take advantage of housing if available.
In 2000, Sarah Thibault’s mother, Sherril, showed up looking for the girl known on the street as Sphinx.
She eventually found her daughter, who admitted she was addicted to heroin; before long, Sarah Thibault entered drug rehab.
She recently graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in anthropology and holistic health. Both her parents were there to celebrate the return of the child they almost lost.
“Most homeless kids in Haight-Ashbury have parents who care about them but who don’t know what to do to get them back,” Sherril Thibault said. “I understand why Haight residents are upset. But these kids are somebody’s children. They need a place to survive the trials of being young.”
‘I don’t owe you’
Barbara Libasci’s home sits near a rock ‘n’ roll landmark: the house at 710 Ashbury St. where Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once lived.
She has a front-row seat at a daily alternative music event she’d rather not attend. She often finds homeless kids sleeping on the lawn of the former Dead house. They climb the picket fence to peer inside the front windows and pick flowers from the garden.
“They camp right in the driveway,” said the retired nurse, who lives in the former Haight-Ashbury headquarters of the Hells Angels. “I have to tell them to move so the owners don’t back out over them. They’re degrading the property.”
Even some of those who try to help are getting fed up.
John Grima, a program director at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, founded in the 1960s, says his agency provides “nonjudgmental” services for homeless youths. “Still, there’s this assumption of a free ride,” he said.
Grima said a teen asked him for change on Haight Street. Grima offered him slices of pepperoni pizza. The young man refused, saying he was vegetarian.
“I said, ‘OK, then don’t eat it,’ then I got mad,” Grima said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t owe you anything. I’m happy to help you, but I don’t owe you a thing.’ ”
Recently, the stance against the homeless has hardened. Residents last year resurrected the Haight Ashbury Improvement Assn. to push the city to crack down on loitering. They have started a “court watch” program to monitor cases and push judges to sentence offenders to community service and order them into treatment.
Police have also cracked down. The department has sent teens home on its own dime and maintains two full-time outreach officers to coax youths into seeking help. But now officers ticket for “quality of life” offenses, including illegal camping and drinking in public.
At a recent public meeting, Homeless Youth Alliance director Mary Howe’s plan for a center with beds and showers was greeted with anger.
“We’re setting ourselves up as the last stop on the help train,” fumed Carolyn McKenna, 54, a substitute teacher who moved to the area in 2003.
“Like, if we don’t help these kids, they’re going to be forever subjected to a life of misery and agony,” she added.
McKenna said she was tired of being criticized for the “crime” of owning a home. “Haight-Ashbury is not synonymous with anarchy,” she said. “It’s not fair to homeowners with their entire net worth tied up here. I’d be disingenuous if I said I wasn’t worried about property values.”
Still, the Haight isn’t just any neighborhood, and some say it needs to hold on to its legacy. One ex-hippie who returns frequently for its bohemian vibe said he makes a point to hand out cash to panhandlers.
“This used to be a place where kids could come to reinvent themselves, ‘Like a rolling stone, like a complete unknown, no direction home,’ ” said actor Peter Coyote, a Marin County resident who once handed out free food to hippies through a group known as the Diggers.
“Now the Haight is a grittier, less forgiving reality. But these are still our kids. You don’t help them by deporting them. You do it right in your own neighborhood. If any place can do this, it’s Haight-Ashbury.”