I knew I was in for something different when the first homeless person who spoke at the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council meeting I attended a couple of weeks ago said, “I’m sorry if you are having a hard time hearing me, I just had my tongue reattached.” Not only catching my attention, she then had the floor but some next to me started to rearrange themselves busily in the small folding chair digging in for what could be a long night. That’s when the Moderator suggested we put our chairs in a circle opposed to the way it was, theater-style seating with mostly homeless on one side of the room, and merchants and those of us that had front doors to enter and roofs above our heads, on the other side.
After making the circle, the Moderator had a spokesperson for HANC read the manifesto that HANC wanted to submit to the police concerning how the police could be more effective in its policing of the Haight, and some ideas HANC had for the concerning Earthquake preparedness. I am paraphrasing and being brief. Also I am not being fair to the gentleman and the committee that went through a lot of hard work to draw out and produce the manifesto as a stepping stone to better relations with the cops and what to do with the Haight and the problems that are intrinsic that area. That kind of didn’t happen.
The Moderator and the HANC members had an agenda for the evening but the topic on everyone’s mind was the media’s coverage of the Haight and in particular, a Chronicle columnist who’s articles have set off this movement to introduce the ordinance, Sit/Lie, that will allow the police to arrest people (homeless??? People who look like their homeless???).
Soon the meeting turned into a small shouting match and the Moderator wisely addressed the concerns of people who were there, like me, because of the rising situation of perceived unrest in the Haight.
At issue is the notion that the Haight is full of thugs now. The once mellow street people are turning violent and aggressive. The question in the room that night was what to do? What can we do as citizens and concern individuals? Plus the five to ten homeless people where there to keep us honest in terms of what could we do in reality. More about reality later...
Since that night...
In yesterday’s Examiner on the cover page in big headlines, ‘Keeping an eye on the Haight.’ The story starts on page four. In some three to four hundred words, the staff writer informs us about the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, “the driving force behind the Sit/Lie ordinance,” attempt to reach out the Haight’s merchants for the purchasing of cameras to be put up to help with the prevention of crime. The article went on citing merchant’s troubles and how a camera actually has worked once this year catching a killing in the Sunset district. All on film.
A homeless kid was asked what he thought of cameras in the Haight. He said they should be placed downtown, in the Tenderloin where all the trouble is.
Now today, this very day, that Chronicle columnist has written another article about the Haight. This one depicts our Mayor’s walk with his 5 ½ month-old daughter down Haight Street. In the article, our hip, heads-up Mayor is sure he sees a guy smoking crack on Haight Street. “As God is my Witness,” he said.
In my thirty years of living around Haight Street, I’ve never seen anyone smoke crack on the street, during daylight. I’ve seen pipes with reefer, joints and blunts, but never a crack pipe or a glass pipe being lit in the general vicinity of the street.
Now supposedly the Mayor, who it is my understanding, is a member of our little community now that he lives on Upper Terrace, is on board for the Sit/Lie ordinance because of his tour of the Haight.
What a bunch of bullshit.
Back to the HANC meeting...
With a police officer present, many ideas of what to do with the so-called problems in the Haight were discussed. The idea of Police foot patrols was being pushed heavy, as it is everywhere in the City when crime raises its ugly little head in our neighborhoods. The officer present brought up to points concerning foot patrols. Number One: The Police budget, they are cutting programs as we speak. They too...are under the gun to police effectively and cheaply. For example, with a foot patrol of two cops in the Haight, the officer explained that if that was to happen, like on this very night of the meeting. He would have two on patrol in the Haight, one in the station and as it happened that night, there was a beating of an elderly man by his care-giver. Two police people were checking out that assault. That meant if there was trouble somewhere else in the Haight or the area that Park Station is responsible for, with the work force he had that night, he had no one left to do anything else. Plus with foot patrols, it takes time to get to their cars when they have to roll out for action. So if you want foot patrols, give the cops more money. Seriously.
Now here is the Big Problem. If there was a Sit/Lie ordinance in place, who do you arrest? For you the outsider, probably all homeless looks alike to you. For us, Haightites, we know some by name, by location and by smell. We’re not immune to life’s fragrances while we live and work among our shelterless neighbors. We’ve seen some street people’s hair get grayer and whiter just like the rest of us. There are some of us who have adopted certain people, feeding them and giving them a few dollars when we can.
And then there are the kids off the bus with dogs and guitars who think they’re going to bump into Jerry somehow. There are the mental aluminum hat-wearing low talkers who push their ancient grocery carts up and down the Panhandle until they disappear into the darkness at the end of the day. I met a couple in their forties once near Hippie Hill chillin’ on stained quilt, wondering where to stay that night. They had been only recently homeless after her having cancer, him losing his job and their savings drying up faster than you can say, “Cameras can solve this problem.”
See, when you start arresting people for sitting down in public places, you just can’t pick and choose who’s to be taken away. We in the know can’t sneak up behind some stranger we don’t like and point like a third-grader that officer this one is fresh for the paddy wagon. No, you have to round them all up.
A hippie chick at the meeting who had a apartment on the street inquired if licenses could be given out to those who play guitar or make music on the street corners to allow them to perform. She said if we rounded up all those types of people, the Haight might lose its flavor. I don’t think she said flavor, my words.
But there were more points like that. How can we police the Haight and still be the Haight?
Here’s the problem the way I see it. Around Christmas, there were these punks getting very aggressive on the street. When they asked you for spare change and if you didn’t give it to them, these punks actually tried to shake you down. I heard tell that if you said you were going to call the police, the word was these punks would hunt you down and hurt you. I never see any evidence of the hunting down part. I did see the punk’s aggressiveness. But all that action died down after New Year’s.
Also, the Merchants of Haight Street had the worse Christmas ever. Because of the stoopid Chronicle’s articles and the like, locals stayed away and sales were down fifty percent along the street and for the headshops, it was worse because of that Wal-mart-like Goodfellows. This has stepped up the motions to clean up the street.
It has a lot to do with money and always will. From a poor holiday season where merchants typically make their nut for the year to an underfunded police department, money is the answer for a lot of the reasons things are the way they are.
The Haight has an ebb and flow. Some years ago there was a fear of skinheads taking over the Haight. Before that speed and heroin was going to bring down the Victorians. In the thirty years I‘ve lived around Haight Street, I’ve seen banks come and go. Great clubs where famous people played before they were famous are now gone. Things change and then something else happens.
At the end of the meeting in the Haight that night, one quiet guy who looked like he was wrestling with some inner demon on whether to speak or not, reluctantly raised his hand to talk. When called upon he stated that he didn’t know if this was important to say or if it was relevant to the meeting. Sheepishly he said, “The one thing that really gets to me is that the Chronicle columnist that has stirred up so much of this debate and has alerted the rest of the City to how unsafe the Haight is, lives in Walnut Creek. He lives in the middle of Republican territory.”This really stirred the audience up. There were shouts that the guy never actually came to the Haight but maybe once. I already wrote about a bunch of street kids that said they filled the columnist with a bunch of bullshit just to eff with him.
The meeting then reached a point of critical mass. We agree to publish the HANC manifesto and give that to the police to let them know we are on their side and this is our ideas on how to help. We agreed that foot patrols are the way to go. We couldn’t decide which street kids to arrest. We agreed one thing that could be done today, is to go after the kids drinking the 40’s in the Park and the Panhandle. A lot more was said at the meeting that I am leaving out. The homeless that attended made many a good points about what they needed and how the Street could treat them better if we wanted to. And then the two hours was up and the meeting was over.
It was weird leaving that night in the pouring rain after the meeting. To know that some seven or so people wouldn’t have shelter that night was sad. To walk away without looking back felt a little self-loathing with major guilt pangs. To know that there is only so much one can do is so limiting.
It breaks my heart that some people will get wet that night as they try to sleep and some us will throw back some covers because we’re too warm.
My solution later...