Measure S is a step backwards for Berkeley

By Elisa Della-Piana

Elisa Della-Piana is a longtime Berkeley resident, mother of two and attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, where she provides legal services for poor and homeless people. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

When I told my five-year-old that it could soon be illegal to sit on a sidewalk in Berkeley, he said, “But we sit on the sidewalk!” I saw him imagining the police arresting him and his two-year-old sister and reassured him.

“They’ll probably mostly give tickets to homeless people,” I said.

“Why will they give tickets to only some people?” he asked.  He paused. “And, if homeless people don’t have houses, where can they sit down?”

This November, voters in our city of historic sit-ins will be asked to vote on Measure S, which would make it illegal, with few exceptions, to sit on the sidewalk on all the commercial thoroughfares of Berkeley between 7 am and 10 pm. By law, Measure S would apply to Girl Scouts or lemonade stand entrepreneurs on folding chairs, street performers on milk crates, and Berkeley High students sitting and texting near school. There is no exception for elderly or disabled people who need to rest. [Ed: Exceptions are made for medical emergencies, wheelchairs and similar mobility devices.]

A first offense is an infraction and carries a fine of almost $200 when you include court fees. The second offense is a misdemeanor. The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail – the same penalty as crimes of assault and petty theft.

It’s hard to imagine Berkeley police giving tickets to Girl Scouts selling cookies, because it likely won’t happen: most citations will be given to youth of color and homeless people. That’s exactly the kind of unfairness that worries my son.

The proponents of Measure S claim that the law will help homeless people. I have worked for over ten years with homeless clients across the Bay Area. I have seen laws like the sit law – laws against sleeping in doorways or blocking the sidewalk – enforced repeatedly, and they put homeless people into the criminal justice system, not services. We have plenty of problems in Berkeley. But having a law that prescribes jail for sitting is not going to solve any of them:

A sit law won’t improve business. San Francisco passed a sit/lie law in 2010, and the evidence is in. The City Hall Fellows (an independent group commissioned by the city controller’s office) issued a report showing that the majority of merchants saw no change in the number of homeless people in commercial areas. In fact, 40% said things were worse. The report called sit/lie “ineffective” at meeting any of its goals. There is strong evidence that Berkeley will experience similar results. In 2010, the Berkeley City Manager’s Office studied declining retail sales in Berkeley. The report showed that sales were highest in commercial areas with the most homeless people: that is, there’s no link between the presence of homeless people and the decline of local businesses. The report made several recommendations to help business, none of which was a sit law.

A sit law won’t solve homelessness. Affordable housing would, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The irony of laws like Measure S is that they actually make things worse. Homeless people are given citations, and when they can’t afford to pay the fines, the court issues bench warrants. Those warrants make it more difficult to get into housing, or get a job. Enforcing Measure S would actually prevent people from getting off the street.

A sit law won’t make us safer. Studies show that homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit them. It is already illegal to assault or threaten people. It is already illegal to lie on the sidewalk. It is already illegal to sit on the sidewalk if you are blocking people from passing.  It is already illegal to obstruct the sidewalk with your belongings. I want the police to enforce laws against violence and harassment, to keep my family and my neighbors safe. But I don’t want the police choosing who can and who can’t be in our public spaces. That’s not what police are for. If we use them to enforce laws like a sit law, then we’re distracting the police from real safety issues, and we’re giving up on the personal interactions that make our city a real community.

My kids and I have had both good and bad experiences with homeless people in Berkeley, just as we have had good and bad experiences with shopkeepers and Cal students and Berkeley High kids. It can be difficult to be faced with poverty, to answer my kids’ questions about why people don’t have homes or why they seem mentally ill. I feel particularly troubled by youth on the street, especially knowing that 43% of homeless youth were beaten by a foster parent or caretaker, 25% were sexually propositioned by a caretaker, and 20% left home over a conflict with their parents about their LGBT status.

My son has the logic right: without anywhere else to go, homeless people will still sit in public spaces. To change that, Berkeley needs:

  1. A day-time youth drop-in. Berkeley’s drop-in closed in 2004, and there have been more homeless youth in public spaces since. The overnight youth shelter is open only six months of the year.
  2. Day-time access to sheltered spaces for adults. There are four times more homeless people in Berkeley than beds. Our adult shelter is only open at night. Disabled homeless adults need places to be during the day.
  3. Trained outreach workers. Other cities have had success with street outreach, when the outreach workers are trained to work with people who have mental illness. We can’t just give people a vest and an “Ambassadors” title, tell them to order people around, and expect good results.

These solutions are not difficult. They are not even that expensive. They make a lot more sense than a law against sitting.

Measure S would establish the simple act of sitting as a crime in our community. Its proponents promise that it will only be enforced against people who look a certain way. But that’s not the Berkeley I know and love — the city of free speech, civil liberties and diversity. As I raise my kids here, I want to teach them that being a Berkeleyan means that we have a history of accepting people who are different; that we don’t judge people based only on how they look. Measure S is not about antisocial behavior. Not a word of it is about services for homeless people. It’s a law against sitting, and you can’t explain to kids why sitting should be a crime without teaching them to discriminate.

Berkeley can do better.

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Visit Berkeleyside’s Voter’s Edge Berkeley for complete coverage and tracking of the city’s 10 ballot measures. Visit Berkeleyside’s Election 2012 section to see all our coverage in the run-up to Nov. 6.

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  • Iamanonymos

    Sharkey, do you work for the group that sponsored this?

  • Iamanonymos

    Homelessness is not a crime. Stop giving money and they will leave. The rent is too damn high and Berkeley’s regulations and civil servants with different interpretations of the regulations and the ridiculous zoning board makes it a nightmare of a place to try to open a business. Vote NO. Amerika is the supposed to be the Land of the Free.
    A real help to the problem would be to occupy some of these greedy landlord’s properties for daytime drop in services.  How many years of being vacant before a property is conidered a blight?  Those vacancies say more than the street scene.

  • Iamanonymos

    Your feeling “intimidated” by “street punks” is not going to be lessened by making them stand. I feel safe walking past PEOPLE who a sitting on the sidewalk because they are SITTING. Just ignore them.  Feeling intimidated by a class of people, like young black men, does not justify limiting their freedoms.

    “Begging layabouts” were there when you signed the lease, right?

    Were the cursing drunks there when you moved into your residence? Maybe you should have chosen to live in Mill Valley. I believe that cursing is protected free speech, but maybe the cursing does violate a law like disturbing the peace. If they are drunk in public, that is probably also a violation of law. Call the cops on them and the drunk frat boys at UC.

  • Berkeley Resident

    About an hour ago, several of us were waiting for a bus, at Kittredge and Shattuck, to take us up toward the campus area and College Ave.  The young punks, about 15 of them, were spread out over the sidewalk next to the bus stop.  They had stacked their belonging up against the bus stop.  The air reeked.  At one point one of the punks, who appeared to be on drugs and/or extremely mentally challenged, began chasing away people trying to walk through this chaos.  He yelled and screamed, and was partially undressed.  I called Berkeley Police non-emergency at this point to report the chaotic scene.

    It’s unacceptable that normal citizens must continue to suffer from the behavior of those who are not accepting the help of social services and furthermore, are littering our sidewalks and abusing our citizens

    I’ll vote Yes on Measure S.  And for all those voting No on Measure S who think that some sort of ideal situation is going to appear suddenly that will alleviate these sorts of ongoing and tiring situations, it won’t.

  • anon

    ya think?

  • anon

    i’m assuming he was doing this in a sitting position? Is that why you want to outlaw sitting?

  • Guesto

    What part of “began” don’t you understand? 

  • The Sharkey

    Nope. I do not work for and am not involved with any Berkeley company, organization, or politician.

    I don’t even have any political signs in my yard or windows.

  • Siliminagic69

     If we (as a society) had taken care of these mentally ill folks then we wouldn’t have to see or hear them when they go off on us.  The reason they are out there, for you to see and hear yell at you, is because you, me, and everyone else ignored the problem, until it yelled at you, while getting a sandwich, that is. You are noticing it now, right?  Too late.  Should have handled it back when it was manageable.

  • Siliminagic69


  • Can you provide a citation for that number, please?

    As far as I understand it, we don’t have a single shelter or drop-in center that’s open during the day.

  • The Sharkey
  • When we achieve our “ends”, what we usually have left is the habits we’ve formed in getting there.

    I haven’t received the flyers you mentioned, but I have received ones from the EBA and TBID (i.e. commercial landlords) with a few whoppers:+ that Berkeley has plenty of services in place to get people out of addiction and into housing
      -> we don’t have a single shelter or drop-in center that’s open during the day, and the only service provided is a three-hour course, which is supposed to fix your addiction (which all homeless people have), and magically grant you a house.
    + that citations will be waived for people who accept these “services”  -> there’s no such provision in the law.

    + that Measure S will “protect jobs”.
      -> No study has shown that homeless people have an effect on business.  In fact, as far as I understand it, Solano Ave. and 4th St. businesses (which have far fewer homeless folks hanging around) were hit harder by the recent recession than the ones downtown.

    Also, I’m voting no in part because I occasionally like to take a rest on the sidewalk on my way home after a long day of work (yes, during business hours).  I probably wouldn’t be arrested for it because I am young, white, and well-dressed, but it still gives me the impression that this particular law is waaaay too far overreaching.

  • Anotherguest, this makes sense only when you look at it from the surface.  The hidden part of what you’re describing is the arrests, and the aftermath thereof.  A homeless person who has been arrested for sitting on the sidewalk is far less likely to qualify for the programs needed to get off the street.

  • Bishop Berkeley

    Wow, fast cite by Sharkey.

    I was just going to say that the number (couple million) didn’t especially surprise me.  Anyone who has read a couple of Council (or especially Rent Board) agendas will eventually notice that our City has lots, and lots, and lots of contracts with (and grants to) local non-profits to fund various services and projects.  Most of the services are Berkeley-specific, tho not all of them.  I’d say the reporting requirements for these contracts/grants vary quite widely.

  • Bishop Berkeley

    After posting my 1st reply, it occurred to me to search the City of Berkeley website.  Here’s a document that might be helpful — it’s a list of all FY 2012/13 community group $$ allocations by the city, plus categorization of the reporting requirements.


    It doesn’t include allocations by the rent board.  So, for example, the East Bay Community Law Center (the opinion writer’s employer) receives maybe $50K this year from the Council, and I think they typically receive another $125K annually from the Rent Board.  In their case, the money is for “fair housing services” and “eviction defense and counseling.”

  • Bishop Berkeley

    Any basis for this assertion?  I’m familiar with the population and the providers, and I’m fairly certain that non-violent infractions and misdemeanors have no negative impact on anyone’s “qualifying” for “the programs needed to get off the street.”  To the contrary, a measurable percentage (NOT ALL — i’m not saying that) of the people in such programs are there as a result of court/police contact.  Certainly that’s the case for drug treatment programs like OPTIONS, comprehensive programs like BOSS, and what mental health services are available at the county level.  Berkeley’s extraordinary (and unique) mental health department is constantly working with clientele who have all manner of lengthy criminal histories.  It just goes with the territory.  If you’re thinking of section 8 (for those rare few who can get it), only felonies are an issue.

  • tenjen

     Seriously? You like to lie down on the sidewalk to rest? If you did that in front of my house I would come out and see if you were ill. If you did it in front of a business establishment I’d be mildly freaked out. There are plenty of public places to lie down if you must–parks, benches, etc.

  • I occasionally sit outside the BART station in the morning to have my breakfast and read a book.  No one has ever looked at me twice.

  • Berkeleyan

    I have a solution for you:  placards that read “please make this seat available for disabled persons” just like they do on BART.  Problem solved!

  • bgal4

    Build housing in PEOPLE PARK, shut down the pipe line for drug addicted anti social people to control Telegraph and Shattuck downtown sidewalks.

    Yes on S, the beat cop is the referral point for service resistant drug and alcohol addicted folks to case managed social services.

    Both sides of this debate about a simple tool are failing to properly describe the underlying reasons why Berkeley is unable to progress on implementing a case managed programmatic remedy.

  • George_Spanley

    Now that’s a bummer. 
    Revolting. Of course he couldn’t be sitting when he did it, had to be squatting. Else the effluent would be stuck on his bottom. An aquaintance recently told me that she witnessed a City of Berkeley employee (garbage collector) run up into her driveway and then return to the garbage truck. Later in the day, she discovered a poop pile in her driveway where the man had been. The next week, she asked the man about it, who told her: “I had to go right then.” WTH? Her response was to feel concerned that COB employees don’t have a place to defecate. My response would have been to contact the city, having photographed “the crapper,” and brought some serious pressure on the city. Biohazard anyone? Bad enough that he defecated on private property, but why didn’t he clean it up?As to explaining taking a dump to a 5 year old, how could that be difficult? Five year olds poop. 

  • The Sharkey

    Great points! We should never try to improve anything, and should always strive to preserve the status quo!


  • anon

    Sounds to me like the guy “became” a problem when he “began” chasing people upon “standing up”.
    Perhaps we should outlaw standing?
    Or maybe, just maybe, we should deal with the actual harassment.

  • Guest

    You guys HAVE to read this Op-Ed in the Daily Cal on homelessness and Measure S:


  • The Sharkey

    Allowing people to camp out on our sidewalks is what attracts these kinds of people to Berkeley from other areas. Stop letting them camp out, and they’ll stop coming here.

  • Anon

     What kind of job lets you spend your days posting fact-free opinions like this one online? Or maybe you’re unemployed?

  • chicolini

    let the people sit already, sidewalk, sidesquat, side sit, shatever these folk are not impding any traffic are they, as to the rest of these scenarios, like Mike Lawsob’s, Well jut just keep on walking, there but for the grace of the gods go you, eh?