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Haight Street Kids' History Is Key

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A sit/lie law won't address the problems of homeless street youth

Big foot lives in Golden Gate Park.

He was 7 years old when he was taken away from his mother (because of an abusive step-father) and placed in a hospital from which he quickly escaped. The rest of his youth was spent in group homes or on the streets.

Big Foot has been hanging around the upper Haight on and off since the 1970s and says most of the neighborhood’s homeless youth came up in the same kinds of places: “They’re either runaways or throwaways. The system takes care of them for so long and then spits them out.”

Street kids in the Haight are at the center of the debate over the recent sit/lie proposals in San Francisco, which would criminalize sitting or lying on city sidewalks. The Board of Supervisors last month voted down a sit/lie ordinance backed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief George Gascon, but a sit/lie measure might still end up on the November ballot.

You’ve seen the kind of people, mostly kids, these measures target: young hippies and punks, often dirty, toting tattered backpacks and sleeping bags, strumming guitars, and trying to “spange” (spare change) enough money to buy some weed or a slice of pizza.

Sit/lie supporters complain that street kids are a menace—homeless by choice and happy to harass warmhearted citizens into subsidizing their drug habits. Some are aggressive panhandlers, some aren’t. This we know, but why do we think they’re out there in the first place? Like Big Foot, the street kids I spoke with had a lot to say about how they live and where they came from.

“You’re in one group home, you start making friends and then they bounce you to another one, and you have to start all over,” Big Foot says. “The kids that get to stay in one place for a long time have the best chance of making it.”

Big Foot is tall, 40 and still homeless. He stands on the sidewalk in front of Amoeba Music at the western end of Haight St., towering over three scruffy young transients, talking about police in the neighborhood.

“If you know a city with cooler cops than San Francisco, tell me so I can move there,” Big Foot says to the group.

“There’s a difference between cops and pigs,” says one of the travelers, whose dirty clothes and battered acoustic guitar make him look every bit the homeless foster-care refugee he claims to be. “A cop will talk to you like you’re a person. A pig wants to abuse power. Cops are here for a sense of security. Pigs are here for a sense of fear.”

As they’re talking, an Amoeba employee comes out and politely asks them to move away from the store, and they don’t argue.

Big Foot says he spent 20 years in various prisons for armed robbery, assault and drug-related crimes. Now, he says, he’s trying to live better.

“I’d rather beg money and not commit crimes than be back in the system,” he says. “It’s a better use of my life to help out street youth—help them with resources to survive out here, teach them about dumpster diving, about eating food out of the garbage that’s on top, not the bottom.”

The next morning, Reset, 18, sits in the back dining room of the McDonald's across from Golden Gate Park. He’s been homeless off and on since he ran away from an Arizona boot camp for troubled youth a few years ago.

“If you want to solve the homeless problem, take them in,” he says. “If they stink, give them a shower.”

Reset is headed to a café up the street today to apply for a job. If it weren’t for his two backpacks you wouldn’t guess that he’s homeless. His hair is cropped close and his clothes are relatively unsoiled.

“I like to stay clean and presentable,” he says. “There’s got to be some level of self respect.”

Troll, 25 and transient, sits with Big Foot down the street, eating a slice of pizza. Like Big Foot, Troll’s name reflects her height. The two are talking about the stabbing a couple of days earlier of a homeless man in Buena Vista Park, just five blocks away. Both say police have been cracking down on street kids since the murder.

“One of us kills one of us, and [the police] reaction is to write more camping tickets,” Troll says. “If a yuppie kills a yuppie, do they start writing more jaywalking tickets to people in suits?”

(SFPD spokespeople did not answer requests for information about the neighborhood police response to the Buena Vista murder.)

Troll has a journalism degree from a small Louisiana college she attended on a scholarship. She says she couldn’t get a job after graduation and decided to start hopping trains.

“I came from a dysfunctional family without a lot of money,” she says. “I was not the typical college student. I only got to do it because of merit. People always said I had a bright future.”

Troll and Big Foot believe a sit/lie law is aimed directly at people like them.

“We’re already having to live with the danger of living on the street, sleeping with one eye open,” Troll says. “There must be hundreds of homeless people and transients in the neighborhood, and they’re punishing them for the actions of a few. Whoever votes for [sit/lie], their tax dollars are going to pay for putting people in jail for petty crimes.”

Back down at McDonald's, five spangers sit on the sidewalk, one plucking a guitar, another thumbing through a Steinbeck paperback. A police cruiser rolls up and the officer asks the musician, “Do you know any Madonna, like “Lucky Star?” The musician holds up his guitar: “I only have three strings.” Everyone laughs and the cops roll on. It’s a nice moment.

It’s hard to see how a sit/lie ordinance would do much to address the issue of kids living on our streets. If anything, it would alienate them further. Maybe instead, we should focus on who they are and how they got here.

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