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San Francisco Bans Sitting or Lying on Sidewalks

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A homeless man in San Francisco. Credit: Russel A. Daniels www.russeldaniels.com

San Francisco’s reputation as a home for wayward creatives took a bit hit in November 2010, when voters approved a law which would ban sitting or lying on the sidewalks.  As Making Contact’s Andrew Stelzer reports, the law is not only challenging the identity of the city, but is being criticized as a cruel and ineffective way of dealing with the large homeless population.

(sound of guitar playing)

STELZER: Could there be anything more San Francisco than a 20-year-old from Ohio playing guitar on the street?

Warber: “I’m working on a musical project called K N O W , and I’ve been here for about 2 and a half months this time….it’s a travelling rock and roll circus we’re working on.”

STELZER: Samuel Warber is following a decades-long tradition of artists, musicians, and other assorted wanderers who came to San Francisco to find themselves, and to be part of a more accepting society.  It’s the last place you might expect a law that bans people from sitting on the sidewalks—even musicians like Warber.  But in the November 2010 election, that’s just what happened.

Blue: “This law is going to most directly affect the most vulnerable people in our community.  People who need services, while services are being drastically cut in our city.”

STELZER: Andy Blue was one of the organizers of the “Sidewalks are for People” campaign.  They worked to try and defeat a ballot initiative, titled Proposition L, that banned anyone from sitting or lying on San Francisco sidewalks between 7am and 11pm. Voters approved the Prop L law, 53 to 47 percent.

(chanting, singing)

“Sidewalks are for people…no on L.  Sidewalks are for people…NO on L.”

STELZER: The ‘No on L’ campaign held numerous colorful, creative rallies, and their stickers could be seen all over town.  But they only raised about 10 thousand dollars. Supporters of the ban, led by business owners and the chamber of commerce, spent around half a million dollars to fund their campaign.  They focused on stories of gutter punks and street kids hanging out in the legendary Haight district.  Karina Rogers manages a toy store called Kid Robot, a half a block from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.  Her store had a “Yes on L’ sign in the window.

Rogers: “A few months ago my assistant manager got bitten by a dog from a homeless guy. Which…I don’t know if he’s really homeless or not, but he was really dirty. He was one of the people just sitting on the street.”

STELZER: San Francisco resident Gen Vandergriff is in favor of the sit-lie ban. Its official name was the ‘civil sidewalks’ initiative.

Vandergriff: “Yes, ban it. Because I take my grandchildren out and they see some drunk laying in the gutter with pee going out of him and everything, and that’s no way for a child to be raised.”

STELZER: What are you gonna do about those people, where are they gonna go?

Vandergriff: “Well there’s more shelters in this town, it’s their choice to live in the street. They need to be…I don’t know, ship ’em outta town.”

STELZER: But San Francisco doesn’t have enough shelter beds or services for its homeless population.  With at least 6 thousand homeless in the city, there are only enough emergency beds every night for about one-third of the people who need one. And even San Francisco police chief George Gascon, a big supporter of the sit-lie ban, admits the law probably won’t prevent people from sitting and lying on the sidewalk, because there aren’t enough police to enforce it.

Gascon: “I have absolutely no interest in doing anything that will impact homelessness in a negative way. This is really about looking for a fair solution to creating a better quality of life for people that are doing business…residents in some neighborhoods are quite frankly being harassed and even in some cases being…you know, physical assaults.”

STELZER: But critics of the sit-lie law point out that assault, harassment, even spitting on a passer-by, are all already illegal.  They say giving the police more powers is likely to lead to abuse.

Avalos: “The main argument they have is fear. It’s not based on policy, it’s not based on the laws that don’t exist. It’s really about people’s perception, about homeless people and homeless young people in general.”

STELZER: John Avalos is a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. The board voted down the sit-lie ban in early 2010. But Mayor Gavin Newsom, who supports the ban, put it on the ballot himself.

Avalos: “Back in the late ‘90s, there were discussions about “super predators”, why we needed to have stronger gang laws and stronger penalties. This is all part of it, now we have a “super predator”-type homeless kids who are on Haight Street; that is not the reality. I’ve been going to Haight Street for like 20 years now, and it hasn’t changed much at all. It’s a place that has a mix of tourists, local people, local residents shopping, going to cafes, and a lot of homeless kids. It’s traditionally been like that.”

STELZER: Indeed, walking down Haight Street, out-of-towners say the street life is part of what they expect of this historic neighborhood.

New Yorker: “It’s part of the culture. I’m not from San Francisco, but it seems like part of the culture of Haight.”

STELZER: Well that’s one of the things, they’re saying for out-of-towners it makes it uncomfortable, and people are getting harassed…

New Yorker: “You don’t want to homogenize it.  I’m from New York and that’s what happens.”

Magdalena: “There are some of them in Prague. Sometimes plenty.”

STELZER: And do people get mad?

Magdalena: “No, I don’t think so. It’s not so bad, and they are not really bothering anybody.  I think it’s just something you see in every big city.  I don’t know if there is any big city without these people.”

STELZER: Jason Lean is one of those street people.

Lean: “We’re just sitting, not doing anything, you know, just sitting around, having a good time, and just hanging out and stuff.”

STELZER: Looking grimy on the sidewalk next to his mangy dog, Lean is sitting near the corner of Haight and Masonic. He says in his few months living on San Francisco’s streets, he’s occasionally harassed by the cops, and he expects that will only increase now.  Under the new law, after a warning by police, there’s a $100 fine for the first offense.  That rises to $500 and 30 days in jail for repeat offenders.

Lean: “Basically, low income, no income, and the elderly. So, that’s basically who’s gonna be affected. It’s economic profiling, that’s basically what it is.”

STELZER: Jessica Naugle has worked at the All You Knead restaurant on Haight Street for 5 years.

Naugle: “I just imagine what it would be like to be down and out and having a feeling like you kind of have nothing and none of the benefits of society, and then to have people come along and say like ‘Oh by the way, we’d also like if you were just gone off the street.’ There is no other answer, nowhere to go, so it is basically saying ‘We’d really just wish you would disappear’.  To me that must…I can’t imagine how that would feel. But I bet it would be really bad. I bet it would feel like the world was basically turning against you and wanted you to die.”

STELZER: Sit-lie laws are currently on the books in about 60 other cities across the country, including Seattle and Los Angeles.  Some have been struck down in court as unconstitutional, with judges ruling the ban violates people’s right to a protected activity—sitting down, or that it’s cruel and unusual punishment. But unlike San Francisco’s law, which covers the entire city, most cities apply the ban only to business districts, or particular commercial corridors.  That’s one reason advocates for the poor are planning to challenge the new sit lie law, in hopes it will be overturned.

(music)

STELZER: Travelling musician Samuel Warber has seen how the sit-lie ban works in Santa Cruz, California.

Warber: “I’ve been down there where people were sitting around and then the police would show up and you’d have to move, or people would start scattering, cause of the rule.”

STELZER: And where would they go?

Warber: “I think there’s benches.  But most of the time people are like rats, they just go somewhere else.”

(music fades out)

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