Haight Ashbury is adopting a tougher stance towards its homeless dreamers amid concerns over crime
On a beautifulsunny morning in San Francisco, Stacey Griffith and her daughter, Ariana, are pointing an iPhone skyward to take a picture of the pole on which the Haight and Ashbury street signs intersect. They are visiting from Chicago on a 15th birthday trip for Ariana. “The Haight Ashbury is just such an iconic place for American and world history,” says Griffith. “I wanted her to see it and be part of the area where it all began.”
Fifty years ago the word hippy was coined to describe the kind of young people who flocked to Haight Ashbury to find themselves and gave birth to a counterculture that changed America and the world. The area is heading for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love when the influx of dreamers reached its peak and the world took notice. But some local residents think all is not well in today’s Haight Ashbury, a vibrant, affluent neighbourhood of varied and colourful wooden Victorian and Edwardian houses where the marijuana fumes on the street can overwhelm. The neighbourhood’s history, clement weather and parks also draw young, homeless free spirits from across the US.
Three people who had been part of that community have been charged with two murders. Canadian tourist Audrey Carey was killed in nearby Golden Gate Park, where many of the Haight’s homeless sleep. Yoga teacher Steve Carter was killed just north of the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge. The deaths have sparked a fierce debate about Haight Ashbury’s rough sleepers and the tolerance of a place long famed for peace and love. “We understand there is going to be a certain element of alternative lifestyle here, but there has rarely been such a huge density of antisocial criminal behaviour,” says Michelle Leighton, of the Buena Vista Neighbourhood Association on neighbourhood safety issues. It has increased significantly in the past six months, she says.
The Homeless Youth Alliance estimates about 200-300 homeless people live in Haight Ashbury. San Francisco has one of the largest homeless populations in the US, but Haight Ashbury section has a distinct demographic. It has its share of the severely mentally ill and people who have hit rock bottom. But the homeless are distinctly whiter and younger and often say they choose Haight Ashbury for similar reasons to the tourists and the hippies before them. “They are looking for something,” says Stan Flouride, a resident of over 30 years who conducts walking tours of the area. He calls them “houseless” rather than homeless.
Residents groups claim that population has changed. There are more users of methamphetamines – “tweakers” – and more crime and aggressive and intimidating behaviour, they say. Leighton’s group wrote open letters to San Francisco’s mayor and police chief, among others, in October imploring them to strengthen policing in the area.
“Take the Haight’s degradation seriously before there is another murder and the neighbourhood is removed from every tour book and guided tour,” one read. That plea has the backing of the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association (HAIA), one of the main driving forces that got a new law on the books in 2010 that makes it illegal to sit or lie on the pavement anywhere in San Francisco during certain hours.
The calls for a tougher stance towards Haight Ashbury’s community of homeless dreamers has influential support. The district’s elected representative on the city council, London Breed, and the local police chief have sworn to do something. After a vocal community meeting in October, police presence on the streets of Haight Ashbury has shot up. “I have a large number of folks in the Haight telling me they are scared,” says Breed. “I am not just arguing for policing, but policing is a big part of it”. Having won that victory, HAIA’s president Ted Loewenberg says he would like to see the top of Golden Gate Park nearest Haight street, where many homeless sit in the day, redeveloped.
Haight Ashbury’s street sleepers say they have noticed attitudes becoming more hostile. “We’re now officially the bad guys,” says Rebecca, 25, a native San Franciscan and second-generation street kid who has lived homeless on and off in the Haight since she was 19. She lives with her boyfriend, who arrived from Washington state a little over a year ago, drawn by the mythos of Haight Ashbury. Both are now part of a programme which they say shows how homeless people who come to the area want to look after a place they have adopted as home. Local charity Take It To the Streets, run by Christian Calinsky, a piercer from one of Haight Street’s many tattoo parlours, turns homeless people such as Rebecca into ambassadors for the neighbourhood. In return for cleaning up the streets, they receive hostel housing. Calinsky says claims of more homeless people in Haight Ashbury are mistaken and probably come from a misunderstanding of the ups and downs in the local population which has a large transient element. It rises in the summer and drops in the winter, he says.
There’s another annual slump about now as people leave to work trimming the marijuana crop in northern California, he says. Mary Howe, of the Homeless Youth Alliance, says claims of increasing crime and disorder are false: “I feel like I have seen a decrease in crime and a definite decrease in hard drug use in the last couple of years.” She notes that, compared with other areas with visible homelessness, the Haight has a high home-owning contingent. It is a question of services, too. Public toilets and portable showers would give people dignity, says James Sword, president of the Haight Ashbury Neighbourhood Council. The YHA was forced to close its permanent building, which offered a reprieve from the streets for people, in late 2013 after the landlord decided to renovate. It now does its outreach on foot or with a mobile unit. Howe hasn’t been able to find another location.
Amie Nenninger, a resident of 15 years raising her two kids in the neighbourhood, was recently a victim of a crime: here bike was stolen from behind her locked gate. But she’s refraining from making assumptions about who it was. Respectful coexistence is her attitude to living in the Haight. “The homeless here are part of our community,” she says.
What happens next in San Francisco regarding homelessness remains to be seen. The mayor – up for re-election in November – has said the homeless must leave downtown for the Super Bowl festivities starting this January. But detailed plans are yet to emerge or where they will go instead. The BVNA’s Leighton worries the increased policing in the Haight won’t last.
In any case, notes Calinsky, the Haight and the city needs to prepare for the 2017 anniversary because it won’t just be tourists coming to celebrate 50 years since the Summer of Love. He expects young homeless people from around the world flocking to usher the counterculture past its half-century, “and it’s going to be a madhouse”.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015