Fighting to sit

Time to stand up again for your right to sit down in the city

oped1illustration
Ellen Zeng/Staff/File

This November, Berkeley voters will be asked to vote on whether to prohibit all of us who are not in a wheelchair or in the midst of a medical emergency from sitting on commercial sidewalks in Berkeley between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Who sits on sidewalks? At one time or another, almost anyone. But it’s an open secret that the target of Measure S is youth who happen to be homeless.

We’ve been through this before. 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 while the suit was still pending, a newly elected Berkeley City Council voted to repeal the sit-and-lie ban.

In 2007, the council passed a Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. Commercial real estate interests backed by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce wanted the initiative to include a ban on sitting on the sidewalk. They settled for an ordinance against lying on the sidewalk. They tried again in 2011, encouraged by the passage in San Francisco of a sit- lie ban. When word leaked about what they were proposing, city commissions, the ASUC Senate and The Daily Californian all came out strongly against banning sitting, and the proposal died.

Or so we thought. This year, a resolution was rushed to the council to place Measure S on the November ballot.

Nothing has changed since 2011 to justify this new effort to ban sitting on the sidewalk, so let me quote from the April 25, 2011 Daily Cal editorial:

“Given the problems facing downtown Berkeley — the sagging economy, the many empty storefronts — it’s easy to latch on to proposals and hope they turn out to be panaceas.

Enter the proposed sit-lie ordinance, which would make it illegal to rest on city sidewalks … Proponents argue that in these tough economic times, stores need to do everything they can to make themselves more appealing to customers — and one way to do so is to address the city’s notorious homelessness issue.

However, we vehemently disagree that the passage on a sit-lie ordinance is the appropriate means by which to do this. The ordinance has two major flaws: First, it does nothing to actually lessen homelessness, and second, even if homelessness were no longer an issue, there is little indication that there would be a significant boost to the economy.”

Eight days after the Daily Cal editorial appeared, the ASUC Senate voted 18 to 1 in favor of a “Resolution in Opposition to the Proposed Sit Ordinance in Berkeley.” The resolution is worth reading in its entirety and can be found on the No on S website, www.noonsberkeley.com.

These are tough economic times. There is an ugly strain in American politics that seeks to shift the blame for unemployment and insecurity from those who run the system to those who are being run over by it — labor unions, public employees, teachers, immigrants, and now, in Berkeley and too many other cities, people who are homeless. The Daily Cal and the ASUC Senate got it right. They should be commended. But in a recent op-ed, Roland Peterson described the ASUC resolution as perhaps “the most anti-student resolution in ASUC history — one that could negatively impact thousands.” Huh? Is it anti-student to stand up for civil and human rights and to stand against discrimination and scapegoating? Not in my book.

Peterson is the executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. He justifies calling the ASUC resolution “anti-student” by citing a survey conducted by the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly and the ASUC, in which a percentage of students said they would frequent Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers and people sitting on the sidewalk. But respondents also cited the absence of retail shops, restaurants, nightlife and services they liked, the fact that stores, restaurants and bars closing too early, as well as the lack of parking and reliable public transportation as reasons they stay away.
Peterson’s op-ed inadvertently suggests the real answer to Telegraph’s woes, and it’s not kicking people who are homeless off the avenue. It’s giving people a reason to come to the street. “Food trucks are a hot, growing phenomenon,” Peterson wrote, “and they are now here on Telegraph every Thursday evening. Hundreds of people come to socialize on the sidewalks and street while enjoying a tasty meal.” Geeze. Suddenly a few kids sitting on the sidewalk isn’t a problem.

These days, the line between the homeless and the housed is getting mighty thin. A degree from Cal is no longer a guarantee of a job, which will allow you to pay the rent. This is not the time to be pitting the housed against the homeless and students against sitters on the sidewalk. It’s time to reassert, against all odds, our common humanity.
Vote no on Measure S.

Osha Neumann is a consulting attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center’s Neighborhood Justice Clinic. He is also the chair of the Committee Against Measure S.

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  • kkapa

    moving poverty around from spot to spot is not a solution based political strategy ~ lets be SMARTer BERK ~ I thought we were the “Most Progressive City in AmeriKKK” or is that just another LIE TOO???

  • Urban Strider

    The individuals who should be cited for sitting are Roland Peterson and Craig Becker owner/proprietor of Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph. They sit while the heart of Telegraph remains a gaping blight on the area. It is far easier to blame someone for sitting rather than take vigorous action against landlords, developers, and a paralyzed municipal machine. If they want to sit, lets sit down together and and apply CPR to Telegraph… not legislative electroshock to youth. VOTE NO ON S.

  • Berkeley Student

    The author is creating a straw man. The purpose of Measure S isn’t to lessen homelessness. And if it does benefit business owners, that’s fantastic, but more icing on the cake than anything else.

    The goal is to discourage the homesless, and indigents, and the drifters from turning public streets into their place of residence throughout the day. Is it really unreasonable to suggest that students should be able to walk down Telegraph without having to step over a drunk passed out next to an ATM at 2pm in the afternoon?

  • I_h8_disqus

    The writer makes one good point. The condition of business in Berkeley is the fault of those who run the system. Your city government is the reason for business suffering in Berkeley. They make it very difficult for business to succeed.

  • Emily Post

    How lovely it would be if some of the pro-S commenters could attempt to say something without calling people names, cussing, or insulting Berkeley. Civility, please!

  • Lestin

    Osha’s quite right to note that the line between the homeless and the housed is vanishing, by the way. I’ve met someone with a Master’s in math at a homeless shelter. Look out, students. Your degree is not insurance against ending up on the street anymore.

    • Calipenguin

      And I’ve met a formerly homeless man who now owns a townhouse and has a real job. Panhandlers prey on the naïveté of kind-hearted students. Most of the spare change goes towards liquor, drugs, or cigarettes. Making the streets more hospitable for campers encourages more street campers from far-away cities to come here.

  • Lestin

    Measure S is snake oil, as Max Anderson puts it. It’s a fantasy solution.

    Compared to other commercial areas of Berkeley, areas with visible homelessness have fared better during the economic recession.

    I want to let that sink in. Places with people sitting outside are doing better. I highly encourage researching this yourself–it’s in the Berkeley tax information for 2010-2011.

    We know the real causes of business troubles–big box stores nearby, and, of course, a recession caused by the very, very rich. But it’s hard to target the very rich.

    Why turn on the homeless instead? It becomes clear in the comments sections–we’re uncomfortable with poor people. And I sympathize! I am conditioned to feel the same involuntary discomfort around homeless people that I feel around people of color. That discomfort is my responsibility to conquer.

    I can’t deal with my discomfort by banishing certain demographics from the sidewalk. That would be unfair and it would cheat me of contact with the real society around me, the one that includes an astonishing diversity of people. Let’s celebrate that diversity!

    Homeless people are like anyone else–some are angry, some are incredibly sweet. I doubt my disposition would be too sunny after a couple of years on the street, but I’m continually amazed by how many open, friendly people I see out there. Homeless people aren’t all like that, of course. Berkeley students aren’t all like that. People who live in the hills aren’t all like that.

    Berkeley business owners aren’t all respectful rays of sunshine, either! And they don’t have to be.

    • Calipenguin

      “Compared to other commercial areas of Berkeley, areas with visible homelessness have fared better during the economic recession. I want to let that sink in.”

      This is circular reasoning. Of course areas with visible homelessness have fared better… because those areas were trendy to begin with and homeless people GO THERE to beg for money from tourists, students, and residents who are drawn by terrific shops and restaurants! Less trendy areas of Berkeley will never get the foot traffic of Telegraph or Shattuck, and hence never deal with people sleeping and defecating on the streets.

      And no, we are not “uncomfortable” with poor people. I would hate to see drunk millionaires sleeping and urinating on Telegraph after a football game. Sales pitches from pushy BMW salesmen can be as annoying as aggressive panhandlers. Let’s keep our sidewalks clean and useful for the intended purpose of pedestrians and cafe customers, and let bleeding heart liberals propose tax hikes to build new homeless shelters whose purpose is to house freeloaders.

    • I_h8_disqus

      You do know that places doing well are not doing well because they have homeless people sitting around? Also the very very rich did not cause the recession. If you want people to listen to you, you need to think critically and make logical and sensible statements.

    • Stan De San Diego

      > Homeless people are like anyone else

      Au contraire. Most of us don’t on our asses and depend on handouts from others to get by. We have jobs, responsibilities,and real lives.

  • Stan De San Diego

    > These are tough economic times. There is an ugly
    > strain in American politics that seeks to shift the
    > blame for unemployment and insecurity from those
    > who run the system to those who are being run
    > over by it — labor unions, public employees,
    > teachers, immigrants, and now, in Berkeley
    > and too many other cities, people who are homeless.

    Looks like our writer has to get in the obligatory dose of left-wing drivel into a discussion of juvenile delinquents and 20-something hipsters posing as “homeless”. It’s pretty pathetic when Pravda has more objective reporting than the Daily Cal.

  • Stan De San Diego

    > Peterson’s op-ed inadvertently suggests the real
    > answer to Telegraph’s
    woes, and it’s not kicking
    > people who are homeless off the avenue. It’s

    > giving people a reason to come to the street.

    If you idiot activists cared as much about students and genuine working people than you do about every bum, drifter, druggie, alkie, mental case and micreant who shows up in your town, Berkeley wouldn’t be a national laughingstock.

  • Dan Spitze

    At first I thought the title of this editorial was “Fighting to Shit,” as that’s what so many local indigents do on the sidewalk in front Berkeley stores. Or maybe more appropriate, what used to be Berkeley stores as so many have closed do to the unpleasantness those who regularly sat and continue to sit in front of them have generated.

    If you think it is fine for shoppers to go elsewhere leading Berkeley stores to close down, then oppose the sit-down initiative. And as a consequence, Berkeley will become ever more a ghost town with an economic climate rivaling that of Detroit.

    BTW, read this week’s excellent cover story on this issue in the current East Bay Express. It delineates liberal bastions such as Santa Monica and Santa Cruz who decided to save their business climate by enacting such measures and who most certainly are happy that they’ve done so.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jshemuel Joe Shemuel

      Rachel Swan’s article for EBX is a journalistic sham. She interviews only one homeless person, calls his belongings “detritus,” cites real estate developers as experts on homelessness, and characterizes pandhandling as “not bad for a job that involves sitting on a folding chair and shaking a cup.” She quotes eight pro-S sources and one anti-S source.