Stand up for civil sidewalks and safe neighborhoods

The ASUC Senate Bill 64 was wrong in its decision on Measure S

Rae Zhuang/Staff

As a cafe owner on Telegraph Avenue, I’ve been following and supporting Measure S. When I learned that the ASUC Senate was about to vote on a bill to oppose Measure S, I wanted to observe the process. Senate Bill 64, which is against Measure S, was on the agenda for Oct. 3 and was presented by its co-author, Senator Nolan Pack. With no real opposition, it passed the senate easily. However, it is riddled with errors and misleading statements, in my opinion. You can read SB 64 with our responses at berkeleycivilsidewalks.com/students.

The main theme of the meeting was that Measure S criminalizes sitting and the homeless, who have no place else to sit. This is untrue on all counts.

Nobody needs to sit on commercial sidewalks in Berkeley. We have public parks, benches, libraries, shelters, public buildings and numerous public places people can sit. Measure S doesn’t even apply to the majority of sidewalks in Berkeley, only those zoned as commercial.

Measure S doesn’t criminalize sitting or homelessness any more than an expired meter ticket criminalizes parking or owning a car. Its goal is to change behavior and direct people into services, not to write citations. If Measure S passes, there will be almost eight months of planning and outreach before it goes into effect on July 1, 2013. Police must give a warning before a citation is written.

The opponents of Measure S do a disservice to the homeless by lumping them all together. The great majority of Berkeley’s homeless don’t camp on the sidewalks and don’t disrupt the commercial life of the city. They aren’t homeless by choice, and they deserve our best efforts to help them.

The problem that Measure S addresses is the groups of street youth that camp on the commercial sidewalks on Telegraph and Downtown — along with their dogs of variable breeds, backpacks, sleeping bags, blankets and litter. They are made up primarily of two groups: nomadic youth (often called “travelers”) who come from all over the West Coast to sit on Berkeley’s sidewalks and young adults who may look homeless but are not. They commute from homes in Berkeley and nearby cities to sit on the sidewalks with the travelers in order to deal drugs and to panhandle.

In both cases, camping on the sidewalk is a lifestyle choice, not a necessity brought on by poverty. The city of Berkeley effectively enables this behavior with a laissez-faire attitude toward drug use, and a public that contributes generously to panhandlers and liberal laws that permit camping on the commercial sidewalks.

Merely adding more shelters and services will not solve the problem of getting travelers and commuters off the sidewalks. They want to be camped on a commercial sidewalk, not in a shelter. Dozens of cities, when faced with this dilemma, have passed civil sidewalks laws similar to Measure S. Without exception the laws have been successful in dramatically reducing or eliminating the sidewalk encampments that cripple commercial districts. For evidence, look at San Francisco’s Haight Street, Santa Cruz’s Pacific Avenue and Santa Monica’s Promenade. They haven’t solved all their homeless problems by any means, but the large encampments are gone from their commercial sidewalks.

If there were ever any doubts that encampments of frequently drugged and drunk youth with dogs deterred customers, the 2011 Graduate Assembly survey put them to rest. About 65 percent of the more than 1,800 respondents, 90 percent of them students, said that they would frequent Telegraph more if there were fewer people sitting on the sidewalk, fewer panhandlers, the area was cleaner and more inviting and they felt safer. This survey clearly describes a commercial district that is not viable without some new guidelines for sidewalk behavior.

The small family-owned businesses on Telegraph and Downtown provide a valuable service to the campus community that goes far beyond shopping convenience. They offer both part- and full-time jobs to students and those who are currently out of school. While it is easy for residents and visitors to choose other shopping destinations, it is not easy at all for hundreds of Telegraph and Downtown small merchants to move their businesses. Their livelihood and that of thousands of their employees depend on you feeling that their street is safe, comfortable and attractive.

The current sidewalk situation subjects thousands of Berkeleyans to genuine economic hardship and the loss of welcoming public spaces. Compare that to the relatively benign requirement that people sit somewhere other than on a commercial sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

We need to create a safe, welcoming environment of mutual respect. Berkeley is justly proud of its vital schools, social services and environmental programs. Only with vibrant and welcoming merchant and business districts will we be able to fund them.

I invite you to join us — merchants, residents, Options Recovery’s Davida Coady, State Senator Loni Hancock, Mayor Tom Bates, City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli and other city council members who endorse Measure S — to stand up for civil sidewalks and sustainable commercial districts.

On Nov. 6, vote YES on Measure S!

Craig Becker owns Caffe Mediterraneum at 2475 Telegraph Ave., is the president of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, lives in the Willard neighborhood and has served on the city of Berkeley Homeless Commission.

Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]