She felt invisible. "When you're a kid on the street, people don't see you, they don't acknowledge you," she said. "The only connection you have is with other homeless kids. No matter how tired, hungry or lonely you are, people just pass you by."
Now 25, Thibault works at the Homeless Youth Alliance, a storefront outreach center that offers a no-questions-asked refuge from the streets.
She greets drop-ins, some suffering from hacking coughs, others reeking from days without bathing. The street kids raid the center's refrigerator like college students home on spring break. One recent day, a teen devoured a bowl of cereal with a Swiss Army knife spoon as others dozed on couches.
With her tattoos and pierced nose, Thibault looks like a regular -- which she once was.
When she got clean, she wanted to give something back to the place she says helped her get off the street. Her approach to clients: play the role of a friend, not counselor. "We don't tell people to get a job," she said. "But we offer them tools to do it."
The center's recent survey of 60 homeless youths found that six of 10 had no relationship with their families. Nearly two-thirds suffered mental health issues that included depression and "social anxiety." Seven of 10 said they would take advantage of housing if available.
In 2000, Sarah Thibault's mother, Sherril, showed up looking for the girl known on the street as Sphinx.
She eventually found her daughter, who admitted she was addicted to heroin; before long, Sarah Thibault entered drug rehab.
She recently graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in anthropology and holistic health. Both her parents were there to celebrate the return of the child they almost lost.
"Most homeless kids in Haight-Ashbury have parents who care about them but who don't know what to do to get them back," Sherril Thibault said. "I understand why Haight residents are upset. But these kids are somebody's children. They need a place to survive the trials of being young."
'I don't owe you'
Barbara Libasci's home sits near a rock 'n' roll landmark: the house at 710 Ashbury St. where Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once lived.
She has a front-row seat at a daily alternative music event she'd rather not attend. She often finds homeless kids sleeping on the lawn of the former Dead house. They climb the picket fence to peer inside the front windows and pick flowers from the garden.
"They camp right in the driveway," said the retired nurse, who lives in the former Haight-Ashbury headquarters of the Hells Angels. "I have to tell them to move so the owners don't back out over them. They're degrading the property."
Even some of those who try to help are getting fed up.
John Grima, a program director at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, founded in the 1960s, says his agency provides "nonjudgmental" services for homeless youths. "Still, there's this assumption of a free ride," he said.
Grima said a teen asked him for change on Haight Street. Grima offered him slices of pepperoni pizza. The young man refused, saying he was vegetarian.
"I said, 'OK, then don't eat it,' then I got mad," Grima said. "I said, 'Wait a minute, I don't owe you anything. I'm happy to help you, but I don't owe you a thing.' "
Recently, the stance against the homeless has hardened. Residents last year resurrected the Haight Ashbury Improvement Assn. to push the city to crack down on loitering. They have started a "court watch" program to monitor cases and push judges to sentence offenders to community service and order them into treatment.
Police have also cracked down. The department has sent teens home on its own dime and maintains two full-time outreach officers to coax youths into seeking help. But now officers ticket for "quality of life" offenses, including illegal camping and drinking in public.
At a recent public meeting, Homeless Youth Alliance director Mary Howe's plan for a center with beds and showers was greeted with anger.
"We're setting ourselves up as the last stop on the help train," fumed Carolyn McKenna, 54, a substitute teacher who moved to the area in 2003.
"Like, if we don't help these kids, they're going to be forever subjected to a life of misery and agony," she added.
McKenna said she was tired of being criticized for the "crime" of owning a home. "Haight-Ashbury is not synonymous with anarchy," she said. "It's not fair to homeowners with their entire net worth tied up here. I'd be disingenuous if I said I wasn't worried about property values."
Still, the Haight isn't just any neighborhood, and some say it needs to hold on to its legacy. One ex-hippie who returns frequently for its bohemian vibe said he makes a point to hand out cash to panhandlers.
"This used to be a place where kids could come to reinvent themselves, 'Like a rolling stone, like a complete unknown, no direction home,' " said actor Peter Coyote, a Marin County resident who once handed out free food to hippies through a group known as the Diggers.
"Now the Haight is a grittier, less forgiving reality. But these are still our kids. You don't help them by deporting them. You do it right in your own neighborhood. If any place can do this, it's Haight-Ashbury."