Unfounded Fears 

Why the controversy over a Berkeley measure that would ban sitting on sidewalks is overblown.

Page 4 of 5

HAIA's current president, Ted Loewenberg, agreed. "It hasn't been the highest priority item for police, but they're doing a good job of it," Loewenberg said. "What's remarkable is how different it is now from what it was in fall of 2010. Back then you'd have a hard time going down the sidewalk from Stanyan to Masonic without having to walk around people with their dogs and their shopping carts."

While it's too early to tell whether sit/lie will create an appreciable change in the normal turnover of businesses on Haight Street, it's definitely affected the aesthetic of San Francisco's street culture, and proponents of sit/lie in other cities contend that, ultimately, that's good enough. The whole point is to create the perception that a city is looking after its merchants and its pedestrians — if you create that kind of attitude, then economic development will follow.

Former Santa Cruz Mayor Rotkin said that in the eighteen years since the city passed its sit/lie law, business has generally seen an uptick. The businesses that flank Santa Cruz's main thoroughfare on Pacific Avenue are a robust mix of chains and smaller boutiques. There's a Gap, a Forever 21, and a Starbucks nestled right across the street from the local company Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting. Plenty of people still put their hats out on Pacific Avenue, but the city has largely curbed its problems with aggressive panhandling and loitering. No longer will a large group of kids colonize the sidewalk to play hacky sack.

That's exactly what Caner envisions for Berkeley. Strolling briskly down Shattuck Avenue on a sunny Friday afternoon, the tall, reedy, longtime Berkeley booster tried to articulate his goal in a couple sentences. "We're not telling people to leave," he said. "We're just asking them to sit on the benches and planters." He passed a man sitting on a crate with a cardboard "spare change" sign, just a few yards from the public rest areas in Constitution Plaza. Caner strode by, well aware of the man's existence, though the two of them didn't acknowledge each other.

Development backers in other cities praise Berkeley for finally tackling its panhandling problem, though they also contend that a "soft enforcement" approach might not be good enough. The text of Measure S, with its promise of a seven-month "comprehensive outreach" program prior to implementation, is benign in comparison to laws in other cities. Even lefty Santa Cruz had to adopt a tough-love approach in order to make the law work. "It required strict enforcement initially, and stay-away orders for people who'd been arrested downtown and were acting out regularly," Rotkin explained. "Once the word gets out that you can't just be doing the kind of stuff that was going on before, then you just have to do periodic strict enforcement on about a six-month cycle."

Caner's Santa Monica counterpart, Kathleen Rawson, agreed. She said that Santa Monica benefited from having a line of hospitality workers doling out warnings — much like Berkeley plans to do — though ultimately, Santa Monica needed a law on the books and cops to enforce it. Ambassadors are perfectly serviceable for the "outreach" side of the campaign, but they're not empowered to give citations or arrest people. Rawson indicated that it takes as many sticks as carrots to make a sit/lie law work, and even though these ordinances aren't intended to be punitive per se, they usually require a few citations, at least at the beginning.

Yet it's clear that such tactics won't go over well in Berkeley, where the city council is still divided on sit/lie (the July proposal received five votes in favor; Arreguín, Kriss Worthington, and Max Anderson are vociferously against it), and the local ACLU chapter has already sent two stern letters in dissent. If Caner and his Telegraph Avenue counterpart, Roland Peterson, try to placate the opposing side with a policy of soft enforcement, they may never accomplish the long-term goal of shoring up Berkeley's economy.

Should Measure S pass, astute panhandlers like Steve and Michael will figure out how to work within the system — Michael said the law might not affect him at all, since he has a potential job lined up as a street cleaner. It's the marginal, chronically homeless panhandlers who will most likely garner most of the citations, just as they did in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Ideally, Caner said, the city would steer these people into services.

It's a goal that some homeless care providers — among them Dr. Davida Coady, founder of Options Recovery Services — fully support. Coady said that, in her observation, many of the street people in Berkeley suffer from crippling drug and alcohol addictions, which impede them from accomplishing basic tasks — like getting a California ID that would allow access to a shelter bed. She argues that Berkeley actually has the resources, and the largesse, to assist everyone, but most people won't ask for help on their own. "Middle class and upper class people have families or jobs that intervene," Coady pointed out. "With poor people, it's up to the emergency rooms or the courts." Thus, a citation for sitting on the sidewalk could be a catalyst for getting someone's life in order. Nonetheless, many of Coady's peers think her idea of a benevolent citation system is too sanguine.

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