Op-ed on Measure S: We can do better with civil sidewalks

By Craig Becker

Craig Becker owns the Caffe Mediterraneum at 2475 Telegraph Ave., is the president of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, lives in the Willard neighborhood, and has served on the Homeless Commission for the last five years.

Like most people I wear several hats. In my case that includes Telegraph Avenue small business owner, Berkeley resident, local shopper, member of the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID), and commissioner on the Berkeley Homeless Commission. The different roles can have different biases. However I feel confident endorsing Measure S from all of these perspectives.

Measure S prohibits sitting on commercial sidewalks in Berkeley between the hours of 7am and 10pm. It has the expected exceptions:  medical reasons, parades, permitted activities, etc.

Since moving to the area in 1979, I’ve been a frequent visitor to Telegraph. It has always had more than its share of street people. However, the recent phenomenon of large encampments of nomadic youth on the commercial sidewalks has had a particularly negative impact.

In 2006 I took over the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue between Haste and Dwight. The business was in bad shape, but we were able to grow it at a steady rate of over 30% year over year in spite of the bad economy. This continued until the fall of 2009 when a group of nomadic youth with their dogs (usually pit bulls), belongings, and debris started camping on the sidewalk down the block from us. The effect was immediate and dramatic – the growth rate went from plus 30% to negative and sales actually declined.

This difference of over 30% was not due to the general economy, high rents or having the wrong mix of retail shops on the street. In fact, it wasn’t due to any of the reasons that the opponents of Measure S give for declining retail sales on Telegraph and Downtown. None of those factors changed from one day to the next. It was due to the fact that there are large numbers of people who are uncomfortable walking by unsanitary encampments of youths and their pit bulls in order to reach our café.

When you add frequent squabbling and drug and alcohol use into the mix, it can actually feel dangerous to walk by. While the individuals change, the encampment continues to the present and it continues to have a huge negative impact on the street.

We aren’t the only shop affected – every business on our block has suffered. Two went out of business, leaving vacant storefronts that have yet to be filled. Others have indicated that they plan to do the same unless the sidewalk situation improves dramatically. One of the shops that already closed, Tienda Ho, had two stores – one in Berkeley and one in Santa Barbara. I asked the owner why they were closing after 40 years. She said they were keeping the Santa Barbara store and that many of her best Berkeley customers visited the Santa Barbara shop more often than the Berkeley one anyway. They no longer came to Telegraph because it felt uncomfortable and unsafe.

The core group of sidewalk campers are nomadic youth (or “travelers”, as they are often called) who travel a circuit up and down the West Coast and beyond. Travelers may stay days, weeks or semi-permanently in a given spot. Traveling is a lifestyle choice for this group and, when approached by homeless outreach personnel, they decline to participate in the services that are aimed at long-term lifestyle changes. They are categorized as “service-resistant.”

Nobody in Berkeley sits on commercial sidewalks because they have nowhere else to sit – Berkeley has public parks, benches, libraries, shelters, public buildings and numerous places people can sit. Measure S doesn’t even apply to the majority of sidewalks in Berkeley, only those zoned commercial. The travelers camp on commercial sidewalks because that is where they want to be.

I don’t think the primary blame for the problems I’ve described belongs with the nomadic youth. They are living the lifestyle they want and no one in Berkeley is telling them that they can’t do so. The real fault is with the City of Berkeley for allowing this behavior to continue year after year without doing anything about it. Meanwhile, starting with Seattle in 1993, some 60 cities have passed civil sidewalks ordinances. Berkeley is one of the last progressive cities on the West Coast to not have one. As other cities stopped enabling sidewalk camping, their hardcore travelers have gravitated to Berkeley.

Outreach and services by themselves have not been effective with the service-resistant travelers. Outreach by Ambassadors when combined with a civil sidewalks ordinance has proven very effective in cities like Santa Monica and Santa Cruz.

Measure S is about changing behavior and directing people into services, not writing citations. If Measure S passes, there will be almost eight months of planning and outreach before it goes into effect on July 1, 2013.  Ambassadors will be doing most of the education and outreach, as well as requesting people to abide by the ordinance once it goes into effect.  As is the case in Santa Monica and Santa Cruz, where Ambassadors do first level engagement, police will get involved only in exceptional cases where people refuse to move. Police must give a warning before a citation is written.  In the rare cases where citations are issued, the City will waive those citations for persons entering and participating in social service programs.

I invite you to join us — merchants, residents and the Mayor and other City Council Members who endorse Measure S — to stand up for civil sidewalks and sustainable commercial districts.

On November 6, vote YES on Measure S!

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