The world-famous Haight-Ashbury district is known for many things, but homeless youth on the streets? Here’s what one of my students discovered:
By Nicole Newman
San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury is a tourist destination, iconic for its history of music legends such as the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin who lived and roamed the streets of colorful Victorian houses. From affordable thrift stores with eclectic clothing, eateries offering scrumptious bites, walls covered in art and mannequin legs hanging out of windows, the Haight-Ashbury is a neighborhood heavy with some of the most sightseeing foot traffic in the world. Yet there is another historical side to Haight-Ashbury – its reputation as a haven for people drawn in one way or another to live a life on the streets.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports an estimated 6,775 homeless youth live among the streets and alleyways of San Francisco. For tourists and sightseers, the homeless kids can be an eyesore to try and overlook. But for one local organization, these homeless kids aren’t going unnoticed. An organization that provides services to Haight-Ashbury’s homeless youth and furthermore, to the city’s homeless population in general is Taking It To The Streets, San Francisco. The organization started at the grassroots level as a service that handed out free lunches before evolving into a program that sponsors people who want help to end homelessness.
Taking It To The Streets is an organization that started in 2014 to help the homeless youth. Co-founder and Executive Director Christian Calinsky has been a large asset to this program. Taking It To The Streets started with an idea, “That the population on the street was dehumanized and needed to be re-humanized so we started giving out bagged lunches every Sunday.”
Calinsky has direct insight into the population he seeks to help. “I was homeless from age 12 to 14 and again, from 17 to 34. I also was a homeless youth in the upper Haight. I felt like there was nothing for me in the way of being homeless.”
Before other kids find outreach programs, they can get caught up in the drug culture of the streets. According to the 2017 San Francisco Homeless Count & Survey, drug and alcohol use was rated 31 percent and the second most common health condition found amongst homeless kids in 2017. When large groups of homeless kids are strung out on drugs and start fights outside of bars, there is a negative impact on the neighborhood. They nearly seem to run the streets nowadays, hanging out in large groups and often accompanied by animals like dogs, cats and bunnies. Passersby can’t help but notice that almost every Haight-Ashbury storefront has a group of homeless kids gathered near the entrance.
Homelessness in Haight-Ashbury has varying effects on different parts of the neighborhood and local business owners. Storeowners and workers have differing opinions on these homeless kids. The McDonald’s in the neighborhood is the site of the Sept. 27, 2017 shooting that injured a male civilian and is the subject of thousands of complaints that the city fields on a regular basis. Several Yelp reviews include how the homelessness has affected the business: “Restaurant did not look clean at all. Too many homeless kept hanging out inside and outside of this location.” (Omar Murcia, Yelp) Across the street from the neighborhood McDonald’s is a Whole Foods where a lot of homeless kids hang out but don’t seem to attract the same criticism.
The Whole Foods on Haight and Stanyan has several of the street kids come in throughout the day. Jonathon Farmer, head of customer service for Whole Foods, says, “They tend to stock up on their basic necessities, like water and PowerBars.”
Farmer doesn’t seem to mind having these kids in the neighborhood or in his store. “I feel like the people that come in here are our customers,” he says. “Sometimes people will get disgruntled that these people look different or smell weird and are in here. But at the end of the day, they are customers, too, and I am here to serve any customer — not based on what they look like.”
The McDonald’s is slated for possible demolition sometime in the next year. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that it would purchase McDonald’s and potentially turn it into affordable housing. While knocking down McDonald’s may cut down a tremendous amount of issues for those who have been affected by the homelessness in the neighborhood, it doesn’t mean that the issue is going to be solved on its own.
Taking It To The Streets provides a range of ways in which people can be part of the solution. They can donate anywhere from $15, which can purchase a pair of socks and underwear or, become a gold neighborhood sponsor for $5,000, which essentially sponsors a homeless person to re-create a life for themselves. Calinsky is passionate about the work that he does because of the effect on the neighborhood. “We have created community where there wasn’t one before. We have connected all the populations of folks in the neighborhood. Merchants, neighbors and the street population. We have also cleaned the neighborhood up for the better. We do street cleaning and graffiti abatement five days a week as well as street ambassadorship among our outside neighbors.” Taking It To The Streets provides the street sweepers interim housing in return for their work.
While homeless people might be a hindrance to the neighborhood they, too, are still members of the neighborhood community. While some homeless people might have a negative effect on the neighborhood, there are also those who are trying to turn their lives around. Calinsky reflects on the progress of Taking It To The Streets. “We have created a community amongst a sense of purpose for our outside neighbors.”
Calinsky adds, “Seeing people’s success, which we have a lot of, brings me so much joy. When we see people realize that they have a life that they are about to create for themselves it brings this light in their life and I get to witness that.”