Nine smoke shops line Mission Street from 16th to 24th streets, and all are owned by Middle Easterners. Family? Several. Friends? Yes. Agreement on the Sit/Lie proposition that would affect many of their customers who live on the streets? No.
They are as split as the rest of San Francisco on Prop. L, also known as Sit/Lie, a ballot initiative voters will consider Tuesday to prohibit people from sitting down or lying on the sidewalks from the hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
“You know, once I came in one morning to open the store and what did I see in front of the door?” Saif Oran asks at the Mission Smoke Shop after he finishes talking in Arabic to a friend who he calls “uncle.” “A plastic bag full of s***. I knew who it was, it was those homeless hanging out in front of the store.”
A few doors down, at Pager Town Smoke Shop, his cousin disagrees. “To stop homelessness they need to give them jobs, not arrest or ticket them,” says Mohammed, who declined to give his full name. “I think the government should leave them alone.”
The shop owners from Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Jordan by way of New York have owned their stores anywhere from one to five years. No matter the time they’ve spent in the Mission, they all agree that New York had cleaner streets and fewer homeless. If their home countries had poor slums, they never saw people smoke drugs so publicly.
“The homeless here are different,” says Oran from Jordan as he sells cigarettes at the Mission Smoke Shop. “They are all on drugs.
“Some come to buy pipes to smoke crack but we don’t sell the pipes here so that we don’t attract them to come and buy from here.”
His friend Mohammed Al-Oufi, 47, hanging out at the shop, has his own views.
“The street would be a lot nicer,” he says referring to the prospect of Prop. L’s approval. “It would not be as dirty as it is now. They just hang out here and throw their garbage everywhere.”
Al-Oufi arrived from Iraq in 1996, and unlike many of his Arab friends who work here and live elsewhere, he actually lives in the Mission District.
“On Mission from 16th to 24th, it’s unbelievable how many homeless people just hang out there.”
He never saw so many homeless in Iraq.
Back at Pager Town Smoke Shop, Mohammed disagrees. “If Prop. L does pass, I think it would affect my business,” he says as he waits for an older Asian woman to count out her quarters to pay for chewing tobacco. “Many homeless people come to buy cigarettes that are cheap.”
San Francisco Giants baseball caps hang behind the counter, and seeing them, one customer asks Mohammed if he’s excited about the Giants game. He shakes his head “I don’t follow the Giants,” he says in a heavy accent.
Another customer walks in and starts speaking Spanish.
“No habla Español,” Mohammed says politely, and after a couple of mimed gestures hands the man a pack of Camel Lights.
Further south near 24th Street, Nasri Samara, 24, from Palestine, works at Walla’s Smoke Shop, which he and his brother bought a year ago. Prop. L, he says, would be bad for business.
“They spend a lot of money here,” he says. “I generally don’t kick them out unless they are disrespectful to me or to other customers. If they are just drunk then I don’t kick them out.”
Samara says that everyone is on the street. “See how many people sit outside 24th Street drunk?”
Down the street on Mission and 17th, Abdu Sharhan from Yemen has owned Mi Ranchito grocery store for three years. He speaks to his customers in fluent Spanish and has few problems with the homeless.
“I have nothing against them,” he says.
The worst the homeless have ever done to the store is to occasionally grab a piece of fruit.