Santa Cruz is a model for Berkeley civil sidewalks

By Mike Rotkin

Mike Rotkin served six terms on Santa Cruz City Council, and was appointed five times by his colleagues as Mayor from 1981-82, 1985-86, 1995-96, 2004-5, and 2009-10. Dr. Rotkin also taught Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz for over 40 years and serves as president of the UCSC lecturers and librarians' union.

In the early 1990s, Pacific Avenue merchants were suffering in Santa Cruz. We had encampments of youth sitting on our sidewalks in front of businesses and in our public spaces, often with pit bulls and belongings. They engaged in unwelcoming aggressive panhandling and rowdy behavior, frequently fueled by drugs and alcohol. Many Santa Cruzans—particularly seniors and parents with children—felt uncomfortable in our Downtown, and so they stayed away, or would make their visits short, because they did not want to have to walk the gauntlet of groups sitting on sidewalks. Tax revenue, tourism, and the public areas suffered accordingly. It was time for a change.

After careful investigation of then recently passed civil sidewalks ordinances in Seattle and Santa Monica, I proposed a similar ordinance to the City Council in Santa Cruz that prohibited sitting and lying on our sidewalks in commercial districts during business hours. At first there was a maelstrom of protest, similar to what recently happened in Berkeley. “Mike, how could you propose something like this as long standing progressive in our community?!” But the current situation was not working. And we were not doing these youth any favors with our “anything-goes” street environment. They were gravitating to very unhealthy behaviors living on our streets. I told them it was time for a new model that has shown success in other communities—that being a progressive was about embracing positive change and not getting stuck in the past with old rhetoric and situations that were not serving our community.

Our City Council eventually supported me, and our Civil Sidewalks ordinance went into effect in 1994.

So how has the program worked in Santa Cruz? While it has not solved all of our challenges, Pacific Avenue, which is where we faced the most problems, saw almost immediate improvement with respect to the behavior and numbers of homeless youth on our street. Our City Hosts and city team did outreach by letting people know about the upcoming ordinance, and the availability of social services.  There was an almost immediate change in behavior; those who previously sat on the street moved to benches and designated sitting areas, availed themselves of social services, or moved out of the district. Others returned home or moved on to other cities, including Berkeley. We did not reduce the overall number of the homeless, but we did change the anti-social behavior in which some of them were engaged. We were surprised by how many homeless people thanked us, because they now felt safer from the more aggressive elements of the street population.

I was most pleased to see how the program worked well when coupled with our Host program.  Most of the education and interaction with the street population is done by our Hosts, who are funded by the Downtown merchants and property owners. Police only get involved in rare difficult cases, where folks do not heed the advice of the Hosts. Having Hosts do first level of support makes the situation less adversarial, helps direct folks into services, and leverages police only where their skills are needed.  The net result is a dramatic reduction in problematic behaviors with few citations ever issued in the process. We still have conflicts, but far less serious and less frequently.

Pacific Avenue is now a vibrant commercial district, where resident and visitors enjoy a varied selection of shopping, dining, and entertainment venues, as well as the public spaces of sidewalks, benches, and café seating. Business tax receipts bear witness to the success of the turnaround.  Merchants are thriving and tax revenues help fund our social service and other city programs. And Santa Cruz has maintained its soul.  It is still the funky, tolerant, socially progressive town it was before, but now just a bit more welcoming with mutual respect for everyone.

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  • anonymous
  • The Sharkey

    From the context, it’s clear that he’s referring to average incidents.

    There will always be occasional extremes, no matter how well one tries to safeguard against them.

  • Pajamaman2000

    As a “houseless”person on the streets in santa cruz, I can attest to the fact that the”no sit/lie”ordinance is neither enforced only downtown or in comercial areas. It is used as a harassment tool at the whims and moods of law enforcement to force otherwise law abiding citizens that to jjh they would rather”not have to look at”…most benches have been removed, at quite some expense, to the detriment of all downtown visitors.Downtown is no longer a vibrant and friendly place, for anyone.No wonder no no one wants to shop or open a new buisness there.

  • Robert Norse

    Rotkin indeed is all about merchant privileges. Though in the
    past he billed himself as a “feminist-socialist”, he has
    consistently proposed or supported laws and policies that give police
    greater powers to harass and criminalize homeless people.

    These include support for the 11 PM to 8:30 AM homeless Sleeping
    Ban (as early as 1979), opposed the minimum wage law in Santa Cruz,
    and helped kill the Citizen’s Police Review Board—as well as a
    backing score of other reactionary measures.

    His 1994 Sitting Ban ordinance, along with expansions in 2002,
    and 2009 made it criminal to sit on 95% of the sidewalks in business
    and commercial districts 24 hours a day. It has been used by police
    to enforce merchant concerns and a reactionary police agenda about
    visible homeless and street people “hanging out”.

    He does indeed focus on tax revenue and tourism rather than the
    broader civil rights of the entire community. Ironically it’s not
    clear that cracking down on visible poverty has had a positive impact
    on sales.

    To equate the right to sit down without being “moved along”
    with “anything goes” is an example of the kind of distortion
    Rotkin uses regularly to justify his repressive views. I have never
    heard any evidence for his lateast claim that he was somehow
    combating saving people from “unhealthy” life-styles.

    His Sitting Ban essentially gives police the power to move along
    whom they choose and ignore those they want. In 2007 Rotkin voted
    for the “Parking Garage Paranoia” law. This ordinance makes it
    illegal to read a book in one’s car in any of the 20 city parking
    lots or do anything other than walk through or park and retrieve
    one’s vehicle. Other behaviors are termed “trespass”.

    Rotkin, at least, is candid in suggesting the “immediate change”
    he was seeking was to move poor peopole “out of the district”.
    His suggestion that they “availed themselves of social services”
    is laughable. There is emergency shelter space for less than 5% of
    the City’s homeless population.

    As a talk show host who interviews dozens of homeless people each
    month, I have never heard a positive comment about the Sitting Ban,
    contrary to Rotkin’s claims. The “Hospitality Hosts” (whom some
    of us term “the Hostility Squad” are primarily a low-paid
    para-police force that warns the poor people, street performers, and
    political activists to “move along” or not sit in the “forbidden”
    95% of the sidewalk.

    As for Santa Cruz’s soul, you might ask the hundreds of homeless
    people whose campsites and property were destroyed in the last four
    months by Rotkin’s police force, paid extravagant wages and benefits
    at his initiative a decade ago.

    Many of us are still hoping to challenge the City’s ban which,
    discriminates against the elderly, the disabled, and the poor. I
    urge Berkeley to avoid this abusive nuisance legislation.

  • Wake up Berkeley

    Left Berkeley for Santa Cruz. Can’t believe this is even a debate. Having lived in Berkeley over 20 years, I recently moved here to Santa Cruz for two reasons. A- I have family here I want to be near and B- I just couldn’t stand the Berkeley mentality of ignoring the worsening problem of the homeless situation anymore. It was the negative by-products of the young homeless culture that exists there. Basically the filth. Such an ordeal to simply walk down Shattuck Ave. to get to Bart. Often, needing to step into the street because of no passage through the young people and often their dogs sprawled completely over the sidewalk in areas. Often during drugs right out in the open which only added more negatively to a difficult situation. Here, I don’t need to constantly watch my every step on the public sidewalks so I don’t step into dog and human excrement, spittle, vomit, or piles of decaying food. I feel I have stepped back into a civilized environment, so,so nice. I certainly wish there was no such state of being “homeless” but I just can’t tolerate the behavior of disregard of others. In Berkeley, the city literally comes in late at night and power washes down the area around the Bart station, that is how bad it is. Why in a “progressive society” that you hail, should there be an all or nothing thinking attitude? Basically, it isn’t about homelessness or poverty, basic social norms of just not only thinking of oneself. And why should any person on this planet, whether homeless or not, have the right to be abusive on any level and be so disruptive to create chaos to cause harm to others? Why doesn’t your “progressive social vision” be one of keeping it safe, clean, and cohesive for all members involved? Unable to tell you how many upset parents, usually the mother in tears, I consoled over the years I encountered either on Shattuck or Telegraph near UC Berkeley. They were, in their words, often horrified at what they were seeing, and wanted to take their kids home, where ever they flew in from all over the world. I often approached to comfort the mother and assure her that if she got away from the downtown area she might see the city in a different light. I would make suggestions where they might go. It was just too hard for me when it did happen this year as I did my best to convince the parents to relax, their kid would be okay, all the while standing in the midst of what I myself came to despise, planning my own way out of there. Go Berkeley! Clean up the place, all the while keeping the rights for all the citizens to be able to simply walk down a public sidewalk without undeniable chaos that unfortunately now exists. Hello Berkeley think outside the “box”.

  • Guest

    Berkeley’s filthy, unruly mess is what we all can come to expect and “enjoy” (NOT) if the Big -0- is re-elected. That’s PROGRESSIVISM for you!