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Public Commons Initiative Targets Street Sitting

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday March 06, 2007

Next week, Mayor Tom Bates will introduce the “Public Commons for Everyone Initiative,” a proposal some say could provide the needed muscle to displace those who sit endlessly in the city’s public spaces adjacent to businesses. Others contend the mayor’s plan would erode the civil rights of those targeted, especially the homeless and mentally ill. 

The proposal, if adopted in principle by the City Council, will then go to the city manager and several commissions for their input, before returning to the council in May.  

Chamber of Commerce President Roland Peterson, also director of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District, says the city needs new tools to address inappropriate street behavior. 

He describes the problem as groups of youths “who sit for hours on end” on the street. While generally they don’t block stores or the public right of way, he says, most objectionable is that they verbally accost passersby, sometimes asking for money, sometimes being crude, even sometimes being witty. And when they get up and move on, they leave a lot of litter behind them, he says. 

“I hope we can get some restrictions on long-term sitting,” Peterson said, underscoring that the restrictions would exclude such activities as sidewalk dining or watching a parade. 

Attorney Osha Neumann, who often defends homeless and poor people, said the mayor’s plan could lead to “civil rights violations without trying to get to the root of the problem.” 

Neumann said there is nothing illegal about sitting on the sidewalk and asking for money and condemned those who say the homeless are responsible for the death of Cody’s, the Telegraph Avenue bookstore that closed last summer. “[The homeless] are the easiest possible target,” he said. 

Mayor Tom Bates was not available for comment. The proposal, which comes from his office, underscores the role the city plays in providing services: “Our community has a long and strong history of funding and supporting services dedicated to improving the lives of people who are homeless or living in poverty and for people facing issues of substance abuse and/or mental illness,” it says. 

out that the actions of added police and mental health teams on Telegraph Avenue have “the unintended consequence of transferring some of the street behavior problems to the downtown and surrounding areas.” 

Bates’ proposal speaks to the needs of the business community. While lack of parking and Internet sales plays into businesses leaving Berkeley, another factor is the “social deterioration of our streets,” the proposal states. 

The proposal speaks to “working with local merchants to develop clear expectations for street appearances,” addressing social conditions by “improving outreach and access to services and by creating consistent community standards for public behavior—specifically preventing behaviors such as prolonged sitting and smoking in front of businesses, yelling at people as they walk along the corridor, and/or selling or consuming drugs.” 

The proposal includes providing “effective legal tools for keeping the sidewalk free from obstruction.” 

Like Neumann, Councilmember Dona Spring said she fears the measure will interfere with people’s civil rights. “I don’t want to see a double standard,” she said, noting that people would still be allowed to sit on the sidewalk in front of cafes. “They don’t want people without money sitting down,” she said, adding that in the recommendation there was no mention of new funding to expand services. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the emphasis should be on attracting vibrant businesses. When there’s a bustling business, such as the new Peet’s on Telegraph, “the homeless fade into the background,” he said. 

Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, hadn’t seen Bates’ proposal when reached by the Planet Monday afternoon, but said the DBA wants public space available for everyone who visits downtown. Now that space is sometimes “dominated by negative street behavior,” she said. 

Berkeley has a host of services, she said, and may need increased enforcement against negative behavior. “The DBA wants a good, healthy balance between services and enforcement,” she said. 

Stepped-up enforcement may be particularly necessary for people on the lower end of the economic scale who don’t benefit from the same kind of financial safety net as middle-class people, whose family might help them get needed physical or mental health treatment, Badhia said. Law enforcement can direct people into treatment programs. “If it’s the right moment, people will accept treatment,” Badhia said. 

In an undated article posted on the Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) website, BOSS executive director boona cheema writes about the differing views people have of panhandlers: “We cannot find consensus as to how to end poverty and homelessness and respond to its most visible prodigy, the panhandler. People who beg for survival or to feed their addictions or supplement their mediocre wages are seen as the failures of this great country … [They are written] violations until misdemeanors become felonies and [we] put them in jail where we seem to be warehousing everyone who seems like a threat to this great society. Whether to criminalize them, or to allow them the right to beg, sleep, lie or sit in our streets has been at the heart of calm and heated debates in the history of the United States.”  

The debate moves to the Berkeley City Council March 13.