"My traveler name's Will Share. Because I will share. You need a cigarette? I'll give you a cigarette. I'll fucking help you out, unlike most of the individualists in this country."
Billy Rosario — Will Share is just his "traveler's name" — sits on the grass, both his posture and manner of dress broadcasting a signal from the peak of Hippie Hill. He wears a plastic heart filled with liquid bubble solution as a necklace, ripped black jeans, and a headlamp. Colorful, beaded dreads dangle around his piercing jade eyes. He looks crazy and dirty, and he says as much.
Believe it or not, this guy used to make your Frappuccinos. In fact, Rosario was a Chicago-area Starbucks barista in his early 20s until he decided to hop on a Greyhound with $27 and a rucksack, searching for a leaner, Yuppie-free life.
Now, he shakes his head at his former customers.
"Stupid Frappucinos," Rosario says. "You don't need that shit. You're fat. They cost like eight dollars, and they don't even taste good.'"
"Granulated," adds fellow traveler Pascualy Guisepi Antonio Cifelli III, alias "Jack Shit."
Guys like Rosario and Cifelli — fuck-the-system, Kerouac types — make for great stories. "I don't pay any taxes at all," Rosario declares, then corrects himself. "Except on cigarettes. And liquor."
Rosario views begging as both an art form and the only full-time job he's ever enjoyed. He and Cifelli laugh about the time they asked somebody for a dollar so they could purchase a monkey to ride to Florida in exchange for some fresh-squeezed orange juice — "Make somebody laugh, that's at least worth a dollar" — and scoff at the duller panhandlers cluttering the Haight. "I hate when I hang out with kids and they're like, 'Spare some change?'" Rosario says, sneering. "Never say the word 'spare' and 'change' in a sentence. Then you sound like a regular-ass bum."
The residents of Hippie Hill illustrate the distinction in the homeless populations of San Francisco. One is homeless by circumstances beyond its control; the other, largely by choice.
"It's a tale of two cities," explains Kenneth Dotson, editor of Street Sheet, the oldest newspaper serving the homeless in North America. "There's very little in the way of homeless services in the Haight area; all of that stuff is really centrally located here in the Tenderloin, so people kind of have to fend for themselves. That makes for a lot of differences in the homeless population."
For instance: the Tenderloin neighborhood has eight homeless shelters, while Haight Street has none, according to Project Homeless Connect of San Francisco. Yet according to a 2012 survey by the Coalition on Homelessness, only around half of the Haight area's homeless would be interested in housing if it were available. Although this doesn't necessarily mean that 50 percent are content to stay that way, Rosario maintains that the promise of a traveler's community lures the disenchanted to Hippie Hill in droves.
No numbers support his claim. But anecdotes are everywhere, from the pages of haighteration.com, the nearby Lower Haight's friendly neighborhood blog, to neighborhood watch meetings, to the casual remarks of merchants and residents. "There is additional [homeless] activity... [but] if a homeless person denies services, there's not much that can be done," Dennis Richards, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, told the Examiner earlier this year.
Although Rosario notes the influx of "travelers" has rendered even his legendary panhandling ineffective — "they're desensitized to us now" — he's happy that people are "waking up to reality." None of the men currently on the hill has a cellphone, and only one has Facebook.
Perhaps the reason the Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury areas attract so many travelers is because of its past, despite how that past lives on today. (While the "Summer of Love" happened here in the late '60s, now Jerry Garcia is memorialized in ice cream at the nearby Ben & Jerry's.) But a grassy bump near the park's southernmost edge remains a pilgrimage site.
"I've heard so many stories about Hippie Hill," says 18-year-old Alex Fisher, a greasy-haired kid from North Carolina who stepped off the Greyhound bus two days earlier.
"I just kept asking for Hippie Hill. So many people've found enlightenment on that hill, tripping acid and shit," he says.
He pauses to suck on a joint. "But not so many stories now," he admits.
While Fisher loves the life of a traveler — indeed, he credits it, alongside daily marijuana use, with helping him kick his four-year meth and prescription drug addictions — he readily admits to the burn-out. "I love it, but I definitely couldn't do this for the rest of my life," he says. Such a life would almost certainly be shorter — a homeless person lives 20 years less than the average American. Fisher would rather go steady with a job, hopefully at a marijuana dispensary.
But Rosario doesn't seem to mind Fisher's just-for-now commitment to the lifestyle he views as his calling. He's even stoked about the yuppies, claiming such ignorance can only empower his own community when disaster inevitably strikes.
"People can't see this, but everything's getting fucked up," he says, holding up a cardstock "traveler's manifesto" with phrases like "Zero Tolerance for Gluttony" and "Forward. Progression. Selflessness." "Everything's out of whack. When the world comes crumbling down... who's gonna know how to use this?"
He whips out a jackknife and flips out the can opener. "It's us. Then we're not gonna be bums, man, they'll come to us for help. And I'll help them."