San Francisco is mulling over a recent report by the City Hall Fellows stating that San Francisco’s sit/lie ordinance serves primarily as a means to harass the city’s aging homeless population.[i] But that hasn’t diminished Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates’ enthusiasm for an anti-sitting law.
June 12th’s Berkeley City Council agenda is currently slated to include ballot language for an anti-sitting law which Bates is banking Berkeley’s panhandler-weary public will pass to “improve the attractiveness and welcoming nature”[ii] of commercial districts.
The proposal cites “concern raised by community members” as necessitating the criminalization of sidewalk sitting as “a logical next step.” The ballot measure, as opposed to a resolution passed by the council, provides political cover for council representatives who support the criminalization of sitting but fear a civil liberties backlash, creates vulnerability for council representatives who don’t support a ballot measure, and throws the whole question into the hands of the voters, a majority of whom voted for an unconstitutional anti-panhandling measure in 1994.
The mere rumor of an anti-sitting law last summer provoked demonstrations and events targeting the anti-sitting proposal before it had even taken shape, so it is safe to assume Berkeley is signing up for another round of demonstrations, court challenges, referendum campaigns, and national press on how filthy, unpleasant, and unattractive Berkeley’s commercial districts are, an oddly counter-productive approach our merchant associations seem bent on making Berkeley’s national anthem.
Berkeley’s anti-sitting proposal will cost an estimated $26,000 in taxpayer dollars, not including police and court costs. There are exemptions for business-supplied chairs, wheelchairs, and watching parades and demonstrations, which might excuse all sitting at all times given the daily, even hourly nature of local demonstrations, not to mention that life may be fairly construed as a parade.
San Francisco’s City Hall Fellows “urban change-makers” found that San Francisco’s sit/lie ordinance had resulted in repeated citations to “an older homeless population, many of whom suffer from both mental and physical health conditions.” The bulk of the citations went to 19 people.
The largest donor to the San Francisco Coalition for Civil Sidewalks for the period January 1 through June 30, 2010, was Ronald C. Conway, a managing partner of Angel Investors LP, and an early investor in Google and PayPal. Conway contributed $35,000 of the $50,800 reported for the first half of the year.
The total estimated “Measure L” campaign in San Francisco cost was $280,000. Divided by 19, the cost comes to around $14,736.84 per person.
That’s not counting Religious Witness for the Homeless’ estimate of approximately $2,461,756.70 in police costs spent per year recycling the same people through the system. That estimate brings the cost to around $144,302.98 per person.
One might wonder if extinguishing the sight of poverty is worth that much of the public’s dime.
[i] SF Weekly, by Laura Rena Murray, May 24, 2012
[ii] Civil Sidewalks Ballot Measure proposed for June 12, 2012 Berkeley City Council Action Calendar
Carol Denney is a community activist and musician.