Homeless…by choice?

Youth homelessness results from many causes, but it’s sobering to think that young people at times will choose to live without permanent shelter. Why? Ask this student, who explored the question last fall:

By Nowell Francisco

“During 1966, the hot center of revolutionary action on the Coast began moving across the bay to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, a run-down Victorian neighborhood of about 40 square blocks between the Fillmore district and Golden Gate Park.” – Hunter S. Thompson

This neighborhood in San Francisco has always been a haven for people who choose a different lifestyle. During the mid-1960s, there was an influx of young people who labeled themselves hippies and swarmed the streets of the neighborhood. They came for the Hippie Movement; they came for peace, love and happiness. They created a counterculture for mainstream America and a different way to live. Though the ‘60s are long gone, there are still young people who come to the Haight-Ashbury in search of free love. Many of them find themselves homeless, living in the Haight or in Golden Gate Park, where the 1967 Summer of Love music festival took place.

Now, the Haight-Ashbury has a flow of young people arriving, therefore increasing the homeless population. Hippies typically do not believe in politics or money, so many find themselves on the streets. Not to downplay the allure of the hippie culture, but many actually choose this lifestyle, and organizations like the Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA) aid these young people. Mary Howe, executive director for HYA, and her staff help service the homeless youth of Haight-Ashbury and the surrounding area.

“The Haight is a unique neighborhood,” Howe said. “It has the most visible population of young people living on the street. Young people have flocked here since the ‘60s and they most likely always will.”

Nowadays, when you walk along Haight, you will see on every block a new generation of hippies hanging out. They take what they can to get by, and they get by with panhandling, playing music or selling rocks such as amethyst, quartz and sodalite.

Homelessness is a term that defines people who, according to Public Broadcasting Service, “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

The 2017 San Francisco Homeless Unique Youth Count & Survey Comprehensive Report stated that there are 217 homeless youth in the Haight and Golden Gate Park areas.

Some see these youth as a hindrance, but to them, it’s a lifestyle of choice.

Dr. Mike Toohey has developed his own icebreaker for group sessions with HYA kids. “I start off by asking, ‘Who came here for the free love?’” he said on HYA’s website. “Almost every hand goes up. They need love—unconditional love, love that doesn’t cost anything—because it was never given to them.”

Love and community is what they come for.

“People want to be around others that choose the same lifestyle,” said Kenn Sutto, program manager for HYA, in an interview. “For youth experiencing homelessness, some of them stay in the Haight because they’d been forced to leave other places in the city, or because their friends and community are up there (in the Haight), or because it’s quite simply just their home.”

Most of these youth come from unstable homes, where drugs and domestic violence are common. So they turn to the Haight and Golden Gate Park area.

There is a controversial side to the hippie ideology, and it is the use of drugs. No one is born a hippie. One must go through the trials and obstacles of life in which they turn to a whole new way of living, contrary to the standards of society.

The San Francisco comprehensive report described how these young people became homeless. The primary reasons for them leaving home were because they had arguments with relatives or friends who might have instructed them to leave, family or domestic violence and alcohol and drug use. Other contributing causes for homelessness were emotional abuse and financial issues.

With drugs being prominent in the hippie culture, the now-and-then panhandler and musician you gave money to earlier is now in a haze of drugs hassling you for more.

Some people—regardless of whether they are visiting from out of town or living locally—view it as a problem. But others look at it another way.

Jullian Dulce, a frequent customer of the stores on Haight, said, “It’s not all that bad, I’d rather argue with a drugged-out hippie than a hoodlum.”

The city, on the other hand, does not understand this position and instead tries to outlaw homelessness.

Howe suggests that there is a better way of addressing this. “The solution to homelessness is housing, it is that simple. Just like the solution to people urinating and defecating outside is providing restrooms. San Francisco and the USA for that matter often seem more focused on criminalizing poverty instead of being solution-based to end it.”

This is where the Homeless Youth Alliance steps in. They understand the lifestyle the young people chose. While others throw them in jail and see them as a problem, HYA accepts the homeless youth and how they became that way. They offer street outreach, case management, groups, medical and mental health care, syringe access and disposal.

The HYA helps people live the lifestyle they want, which is a hippie life. To some, this ideology may seem like they are involved in illegal activities, such as the use of drugs and promoting lewd acts, in reference to free love. These critics don’t understand this lifestyle. These youth are, in fact, living just as you are living, they just live it differently.

To government officials and foreign visitors, the homeless situation in the Haight and the surrounding areas may seem problematic. What they fail to understand is that they have been here since the ‘60s and will most likely be here until the city either fully criminalizes homelessness, which is absurd, or offers them housing just as Howe suggests.

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