Star's flaxen hair glistens in the sun as she leans against the signpost at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. In a voice that nearly melts with each word, she talks about finding peace and love--prospects that the streets of San Francisco promised but have not delivered.
Like hundreds of runaways and disenfranchised young people, Star--barely 18--calls this historic haven of hippiedom home. Most days, this caricature of a flower child wanders through Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix's old stomping grounds. Most nights, she huddles in a makeshift village in nearby Golden Gate Park.
For the most part, denizens of the street, like Star, are Deadheads--nomadic followers of the music and anything-goes lifestyle of the infamous Grateful Dead rock group. When one of the post-Dead bands goes on what is called The Furthur Show, Star and hundreds like her travel across the country to see the performance. They flock to concerts by the band Phish, jazz festivals, raves and New Age Rainbow Gatherings.
But with no concerts scheduled today, the Deadhead vagabonds gather in Mecca--the legendary Haight-Ashbury district. Star, eager to talk with Charisma about her life on the street, suddenly notices a tandem of Bohemian compatriots. She displays a knowing smile as Sleepy negotiates a $10 deal to pose for a camera-clicking cluster of Japanese tourists. Tie-dye still reigns as the fashion design of choice and beads have made a serious comeback, but it is clear this is not the Summer of Love.
"Everything is about money now," Star narrates as Sleepy wanders off to spend his paycheck on a needed fix. "We talk of everyone getting along, but the drugs keep getting harder, and so does survival." Rebekah Logan, a street evangelist and one of Star's friends, gives her a meaningful hug. Not long ago, this 21-year-old shared life on the streets with Star.
"I'm thinking about getting off the streets," Star tells Rebekah. "I'm clean now." Leilah Krounbi, another 20-year-old hippie street evangelist, urges Star to make the move before the lure of drugs traps her again. "I'm thinking about it." Star's voice trails off as she turns and walks away. It would be three months before she would muster up the courage to leave the streets and join the Prodigal Project"s discipleship program.
As dusk envelopes the city by the bay, Star reappears long enough for dinner. She spoons down chili and nibbles on bread prepared by Rebekah, Leilah and their fellow Christians of the Prodigal Project. Many nights, this troop of front-line evangelists can be found feeding and befriending the homeless.
Pulling a red wagon brimming with food, Prodigal Project's Jacob Goodman and 16-year-old volunteer Carli Lowe meander up Haight Street between Ashbury and Masonic. At one stop, Jacob, a stalwart 20-year-old whose red hair almost matches the wagon, listens to a bearded and heavily tattooed Vietnam War vet unravel his story of hardship, betrayal and addiction. At another stop, Jacob, fulfilling the role of a seasoned chaplain, gives ear to the concerns of 18-year-old Lizard, whose many piercings might set a world record.
It seems everyone here uses a pseudonym--a thinly-veiled attempt to distance themselves from their birth families and stormy pasts, Rebekah says. It is in this unlikely setting that Jacob, Rebekah, Leilah and their co"workers connect with the people of a subculture that mainstream society has forgotten.
On this night, Jacob prays with two youths he encounters. Sometimes he will invite people back to Prodigal's Christian House, which is just a block off Haight, on Ashbury, where they can shower or sit in on a Bible study. Several hundred kids have made the trek; more than 100 have made commitments to Jesus. "That's 100 kids who are no longer on the streets," Rebekah says.
How the Vision Began
The Prodigal Project flourishes in a place few other Christian groups have ventured. Launched in late 1993 by advertising agency whiz kid Cathi Mooney, the nonprofit discipleship program brings love, peace and the truth of Jesus to a new generation of hippies.
The 1999 U.S. government report, Homelessness Programs and the People They Serve, estimates that 26 percent of all homeless individuals fall between the ages of 17 and 24. Melinda Peterson, development associate for Youth Industry, a Christian ministry that provides job training to at-risk youth, estimates that at any given time in San Francisco, 1,500 to 2,000 of these youth live on the streets and in shelters.
National figures vary widely, but Mooney suggests that thousands of kids come in and out of the subculture each year. Many attend one or two concerts on the road. The hard"core teens migrate to San Francisco. "This is a post-Christian generation," Mooney says. "They may have been to church as a kid, but most are hearing the gospel for the first time. It comes as a revelation to them that Jesus is God."
Prodigal"s all-volunteer ministry force submerges themselves in the hippie subculture. "I had to become one of them," Mooney says. She traded expensive business suits and salon hairstyles for tie-dye, denims and dreadlocks. She bought a creaking 1974 Dodge motor home and hit the road whenever the Deadheads went on tour.