Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haight and Love

Many spots in San Francisco are the domain of either locals or visitors, and people flow like oil and water into their comfort zones. Somehow, the Haight manages to get them to mix. The enduring 1960s mythology, the front-door proximity to Golden Gate Park, and the blend of hippie, gothic, punk, new age, and vintage styles are powerful tourist pheromones. Hipsters aren't likely to enter the t-shirt shop at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, but the high caliber bars and racks of early 20th century clothes and shoes are cool enough. If nothing else, the Haight is an unparalleled place for watching people, who would never otherwise meet, try to share the same sidewalk.

Sometimes the sharing doesn't go very well. Back in May 2007, the LA Times published an article on the culture clash in the Haight. They talked to residents who were tired of stepping over gangs and enduring abuse, and counterpointed it with accounts like that of a young woman who arrived in 1999 and found that "the only people who were kind to each other were other homeless people."

Some of the groups hanging out on the sidewalk have recently managed to make locals mad enough to initiate serious discussion of a sit/lie ordinance. SFGate, SFAppeal, and the weeklies have all weighed in on the issue.

The Bay Guardian's Tim Redmond has stated his favor of foot patrols - 2 SFPD walking back and forth on Haight Street all day. Chief of Police George Gascón has estimated the cost of this at "close to $1 million a year". So the SFPD won't effectively patrol a trouble-ridden street (which happens to be famous, and a tourist magnet and major revenue generator) unless we cough up an extra $1 million? And the $442 million that the department already has budgeted for fiscal year 2009-2010 isn't enough to include this because... why?

Gascón is pushing for the ordinance, which would give SFPD the power to issue citations and/or boot people into the criminal justice system for reclining or being seated on the sidewalk. Apparently, officers are unable to do anything unless a complaint is filed, and some residents are reluctant to complain for fear of retaliation. Chronicle's C.W. Nevius speculates that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's cautious position on the ordinance, even in the face of a rabid neighborhood contingent, is to preserve his liberal credentials.

Mirkarimi is quoted as saying that "the devil is in the detail and no one seems to agree on the legal details."

That actually sounds like a good reason for calling a timeout before throwing the pen at the ordinance paper. Gascón offers a simple answer to the question of whether a sit/lie law might lead to abuse: his assurance that it won't. According to Redmond at the Guardian, Gascón sees this as a way for the perpetrators to "get access to services that could help them change their behavior."

As much as SF residents enjoy paying to send folks on merry-go-round trips through police stations and courts, and despite the city's stellar track record in the rehabilitation business, I'd have to say this still sounds like a shady promotion. I've seen SFPD hassle clearly benign street musicians. If a sit/lie ordinance makes it illegal to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk and strum a guitar, will it then be the SFPD's discretion alone that determines who needs to be cited or picked up? How would the ordinance affect peaceful protests?

For anyone who has encountered the "thugs" ("bullies", "street kids", "punks") in the bullseye of this thing, it's easy to see why some residents want them out as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary. They're not the downtrodden looking to get back on their feet, they're not typical panhandlers, and they're not just passing through. They have no love for the community they've infiltrated, and they're relentless in their efforts to squeeze as much money from passing tourists as possible.

This is how they survive, and it's the reason why they're in the upper Haight, and not in the Mission or lower Haight. Locals are generally disgusted by them, and rarely give them acknowledgment, let alone money. It's the year-round foot parade of visitors and new arrivals, naive to the situation, who are their bread and butter. Or more accurately, their Marlboro and McDonald's. (This lends high comedy to the their outside-of-society lifestyle stance, since their faithful patronage of the tobacco, fast food, and alcohol industries makes them bigger contributors to corporate dominance and status quo than most SF residents.)

So if free money is what keeps them parked there (that, and proximity to the Golden Gate Park campgrounds), why not reach out to the source of the money? If visitors knew that they were hurting the community and enabling these people to stay on a road to nowhere, would they still hand over that dollar? Some would, but maybe enough would reconsider that it would make an effective intervention.

How about a giant bold-letter notice with the appeal, "Please Do Not Give Money To The People On The Sidewalk", and a subtext explaining the difference between abusive individuals and the Haight's traditional street musicians and hangers-on? If every single business from Stanyan to Central put that up in their window in plain view, it would at least send a message to passersby and constitute a peaceful but firm statement of solidarity from the community. And targeted retribution would be impossible.

Knowledge and awareness just seem like better tools for peace than expensive headbusting, or forced enrollment in the city's "industry of homeless" circus.


  1. I really appreciate your signage suggestion. With all the additional budgets cuts heading our way, the costs associated with either foot patrol or legal fees connected to the sit/lie law is financially stupid. The money saved on signs alone should be used toward more important programs that are on the cutting block.

  2. I live in the area and can attest to the fact that it's the tourists and newly arrived who feed this problem. I'm so turned off by what I see and have to deal with in that section of the Haight that I make a conscious effort to avoid it at all costs. What a sad state of affairs. Thank you for such a lovely, well argued analysis of the situation. The signs would certainly help, but I also think the SFPD would start to earn their salaries and a foot patrol does not sound unreasonable. Fewer thugs would no doubt improve the experience of the area for everyone--tourists and locals.

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