Proposed sidewalk sitting ban prompts debate, protest

Councilmember Kriss Worthington addressed a small group of homeless advocates outside City Hall Monday, calling the proposed ban on sidewalk sitting “outrageous” and “rushed”. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, 4: 50 pm: At a press conference convened today at 3 pm, Mayor Bates, accompanied by councilmembers Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli sought to reassure prospective voters on the Civil Sidewalks measure that its intent was not to criminalize the homeless, but rather “get people out of a debilitating street life and into a better future.” They announced that they would factor more time into working out how to implement the measure — moving the implementation date from March 1 2013 to July 1 2013 — and would be looking at the example set by Santa Monica in particular for guidance.

The key there, they said, was that ordinances were a “back pocket” resource. “Their approach is humane and consistent. They do not use ordinances unless they have to,” they said.

Original story: Mayor Tom Bates’ proposal to put an item banning sitting on Berkeley’s sidewalks on the November ballot will likely provoke lively public comment at tonight’s City Council meeting, but the move has already prompted much debate and hand-wringing in the community.

On Monday, a small group of around 20 homeless advocates gathered outside City Hall to protest the suggested measure. A coalition calling itself Stand Up for the Right to Sit Down submitted a 773- signature strong petition to the city and heard from two of the three City Councilmembers who oppose the move: Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín. Max Anderson is the third. Two more councilmembers would need to vote against the item to prevent it going before voters in November.


Meanwhile, four councilmembers — Gordon Wozniak, Darryl Moore, Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli — put their names behind an online solicitation of public opinion at Open Town Hall that drew 171 statements (the survey closed at 11:00am today).

A total of 176 comments have been submitted so far to Berkeleyside’s June 1 article on the sit-lie ordinance.

And Mayor Bates has called a press conference for 3:00pm today, ahead of the council meeting, to issue a statement, he says, regarding the sidewalks ballot measure.

The Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure calls for no sitting on sidewalks between the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m in commercial districts. Violators would be warned twice and then receive a $50 citation or be required to perform community service. The proposal builds on the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative (PCEI) recommendations that were adopted in November 2007, and included the banning of lying on sidewalks.

Berkeley is among the most generous cities in the country in funding homeless services, and people in need of support often gravitate here. The two areas most affected are Shattuck Avenue downtown and Telegraph Avenue.

The new recommendation is modeled on similar initiatives that have been implemented as part of  the creation of property-based improvement districts (PBids) in cities including Seattle, Santa Monica and Santa Cruz.

San Francisco’s sit-lie ordinance, which went into effect in March 2011, is perceived to have been unsuccessful. A independent report on the measure’s impact showed that the bulk of reviewed citations were going to the same 19 repeat offenders, and that it was not dissuading homeless people from sitting on sidewalks.

The Berkeley measure distinguishes itself from the San Francisco one in several aspects, however. First, it only applies to commercial districts unlike San Francisco. Berkeley also says it favors changed behavior rather than citations and fines. “With appropriate outreach and education, very few citations are written when people know the rules or need a reminder and/or warning,” it states. In San Francisco, the police are responsible for enforcing the ban, while in Berkeley’s downtown area at least, outreach to street people is primarily the responsibility of Hospitality Ambassadors who patrol the area and liaise closely with social services, according to John Caner, Executive Director of the Downtown Business Association.

Public engagement so far gives a flavor of some of the opinions held by business owners and residents in the city.

A District 8 resident who opposes the measure said on Open Town Hall: “I am against this ordinance as I think it will (A) target a population who need help, not punishment; (B) waste the time of the Berkeley Police who clearly have more important crimes to investigate and prevent; and (C) infringe on the civil rights of all citizens.”

Also on Open Town Hall, however, Charles Kahn agreed it was a civil rights issue — for pedestrians. “Pedestrians have a right to use a public sidewalk to go where they need to go. Should loiterers have the right to lie or sit on a public sidewalk and obstruct that pedestrian traffic? I don’t think they should. It is unfortunate that there are so many in Berkeley who are unwilling to keep the sidewalks free for pedestrians that we need to make a law to enforce common courtesy.”

On Berkeleyside, Paul Kealoha Blake, owner of East Bay Media Center on Addison Street, wrote: “I find the Sit/Lie effort to be both an economic and social travesty only awaiting the pull of an administrative trigger.”

But another Berkeleyside commenter, Bear parent, said: “I have come up with an imperfect but for the time being workable solution: avoid retail areas in Berkeley… If the homeless folks have a right to hang around on the street and harass passers by, I suppose the passers by have a right to avoid them altogether. Sadly, Moe’s [Books] has always been a favorite but I am getting tired of running the gauntlet to get inside.”

The City Council will hear Bates’ proposal, which is No. 47 on the agenda, tonight at 7 p.m. at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. The city manager is being asked come back to the council with suitable ballot measure language. The ordinance, if approved by voters, would cost an estimated $26,000 and go into effect on March 1, 2013.

Read the Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure recommendation document.

Related:
Mayor seeks to put sit-lie ordinance on November ballot [06.01.12]
Police step up patrols on Telegraph to keep sidewalks clear [05.01.12]
Newly cleaned up downtown hopes to attract more retail [04.04.12]
Anti sit-lie campaigners take protesters to City Hall [04.27.11]

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