Public Comment

Anti-Homeless Groundhog Day

By Osha Neumann
Thursday June 07, 2012 - 04:52:00 PM

A young man is asleep in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk next to the curb on Shattuck Avenue. It's past midnight. The sidewalk is deserted except for a few other young people who are sleeping nearby. A Berkeley police officer drives up and gets out of his car. He goes over to the sleeping man, who looks even younger than his 22 years, and shines a flashlight in his eyes. The man stirs, rolls over onto his stomach, but doesn't wake up. The police officer grabs him--still in the sleeping bag-- and dumps him into the street. The officer then drags the man out of the sleeping bag, throws him up against the police car, and slams his head down on the hood. He keeps the man's head pressed against the hood until he's finished calling dispatch. Then the officer gives the man a ticket for lying on the sidewalk in a commercial zone. The ordinance for which the man is cited only applies between 7 AM and 10 PM on weekdays and requires the officer to give a warning. The man has committed no crime. Except that he's homeless in Berkeley, and likes to sleep in proximity to his friends.

If they sleep on the sidewalk they are given citations for lying down. If they try and make themselves inconspicuous, bedding down at night at the foot of the stairs leading to the library on Kittredge, they're cited for trespassing. They are told to go to Telegraph Avenue or up into the hills. They ask – where can we legally sleep? And no one has an answer. They want to stay together because they are more vulnerable if they are separate, but in a large group they draw attention. Some of them have dogs and some are in couples. The shelters will not take them, and in any case they're mostly young, and in no mood to be regimented.

And yes, these days they sit on the sidewalk on Shattuck, next to the library, mostly minding their own business. They would sit on the benches of "Constitution Square," the wide inviting plaza next to the downtown Berkeley BART station, but they've been run out of there. BART has conspicuously posted a sign warning loitering and begging are prohibited. Begging and loitering are not crimes.

Neither is sitting on the sidewalk, although that would change if Mayor Bates and the commercial real estate interests backing him have their way. The Mayor's put on the Berkeley City Council agenda for its June 12 meeting a recommendation to direct the city attorney to draft a "Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure" prohibiting sitting on the sidewalk between 7 AM and 10 PM. He wants the measure back from the city attorney by the Council's June 26 meeting so it can go on the ballot in November. 

It's like anti-homeless Groundhog Day. We've been here. We've done that. Over and over again. In 1994 Berkeley voters passed Measure O, after a bitter and divisive fight. One of its provisions banned sitting or lying on the sidewalk. The ACLU promptly sued, but before the suit could be finally resolved a new City Council was voted in and repealed the sit/lie ban. In 2007, the Council passed Mayor Bates's Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. The Berkeley Chamber Of Commerce wanted it to include a ban on sitting on the sidewalk. They settled for the ordinance against lying on the sidewalk for which the young man in the sleeping bag was cited. Last year the commercial real estate interests again floated the idea of a ban on sitting, encouraged by the passage in San Francisco of a sit/lie ban. Four city commissions and the ASUC Senate came out strongly against and the idea died. Or so we thought. 

It's all so dreary and inevitable. By this time we could all sleepwalk through the debate. I'll talk about the young man torn from the sleeping bag in the middle of the night. I'll talk about the other young man kicked awake by a "hospitality ambassador" hired by the Berkeley Downtown Business Association. I'll talk about the reality of homeless people's lives, the lack of alternatives and ask for compassion and empathy. The next speaker at the microphone will deride me as a bleeding heart throwback to the 60s. "Empathy shmempathy," the person will huff. "What about Aunt Louise, new to town, invited to take in a movie at the Shattuck Cinema who comes out to see her Prius peed upon by some drunken derelict. What about Cousin Dave, who was thinking of applying to Cal until a particularly obnoxious and aggressive panhandler wouldn't take no for an answer and followed after him shouting obscenities." Let's have some empathy for them. Of course neither the perpetrators of the unpleasantness to which cousin and aunt were subjected was sitting on the sidewalk, and both of the perps were doing something that's already illegal. No matter. They will be invoked. We will be told how hard it is for business these days. If we could just prevent them from sitting, oh what a wonderful city we would have. Nevermind that there are gazillions of factors responsible for the difficulties businesses are experiencing in Berkeley, all of which will still be there if we succeed in sweeping every last homeless person off the sidewalk and out of town. 

So why do we have to keep going through this brutal charade? The answer is we don't. The City Council could put an end to it at its June 12 meeting. Enough already. All the drama, all the divisiveness, all the time and energy wasted that could be spent on figuring out real solutions to revitalize the commercial centers of our community. What a waste! It's past time to escape from anti-homeless Groundhog Day 

Stand up for the right to sit down!