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The State

Time sours the Haight's love-in

Gutter punks roam where, 40 years ago, flower children protested war.

May 29, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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